Business and labor leaders put political muscle behind a new Minnesota Vikings stadium Tuesday, their support helping build what one lawmaker described as a growing "air of inevitability" as the project neared a final vote.
In passing through a second Senate panel, the stadium plan continued an extraordinary political march at the Legislature after being left for dead barely a week ago. In both the House and Senate, the stadium's public subsidy package seemed headed for a vote this week, although either a razor-thin victory or a crushing defeat remained possible.
"It feels like a first down, [and] another first down -- got a good drive going here," said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, who chairs the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee, where the proposal passed on a unanimous voice vote Tuesday. "I think, after a while, it starts to take on a little bit of momentum and an air of inevitability," Michel said.
A string of witnesses representing a range of business and labor groups including the Minneapolis Downtown Council, Target Corp. and the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, told Michel's panel Tuesday that the stadium would not only create thousands of jobs, but much more. "This is far less a home for the Vikings than a community asset," said John Griffith, Target's executive vice president for property development, who has played a key behind-the-scenes role in guiding Minneapolis city officials on the stadium.
Tuesday's action also showed that stadium supporters were again trying to steer the proposal through House and Senate committees without forcing legislators to cast individual votes.
Of the five House and Senate panels that have debated the Vikings stadium plan this month, three have passed the proposal on simple voice votes. In one of the two hearings where there was a roll call vote, the plan failed.
Gaining steam - and ballast
Since National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell visited the State Capitol last Friday, the stadium plan has not only been resurrected but gained surprising political steam. Some legislators have complained about the quickened pace of the proposal -- and the political shortcuts.
Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said the Legislature's treatment of the stadium plan in the past few days was making lawmakers look like "a total gang of idiots."
"Couple of people get off a plane from New York" and everything changes, said Cohen, referring to Goodell's visit.
There also were worries Tuesday that the proposal was taking on too much financial weight: The Senate panel approved having the plan also provide $43 million in debt relief for St. Paul's RiverCentre and Xcel Energy Center.
"I don't want to drag this thing down, but I do want to help St. Paul," said Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, who proposed the debt relief.
A key legislator in the stadium plan said that using it as a vehicle for debt relief in St. Paul was "not doable," and afterward said it would have to be dropped for the Vikings stadium to succeed. "Forty-three million is a tremendous amount of money -- that can't happen," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the chief Senate stadium author.
There were however other sweeteners added Tuesday for St. Paul, mostly in an effort to entice legislators from St. Paul to back building the stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
The legislation now includes a provision to spend $1.3 million annually for 20 years that can be used for, among other things, a new downtown ballpark for the St. Paul Saints.
Metzen's move created some tension, which could be seen Tuesday as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak had an animated conversation with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman in the back of the hearing room.
"We do believe that there absolutely has to be parity," Coleman told the panel.
The St. Paul mayor's comments came after Rosen reinserted language -- removed by an earlier Senate panel -- that would provide tax relief for Target Center in Minneapolis. City officials in Minneapolis have said that the tax relief is essential to get enough City Council votes for a new Vikings stadium.
Under the proposal, the Vikings would contribute $427 million to the stadium, the state would provide $398 million and Minneapolis would add $150 million. The team would also add $327 million to the stadium's operating costs over time, and the city would contribute another $189 million.
Michel said the final stadium vote in the coming days would be difficult for many legislators, but said the Vikings are "one of the things that put us on the map."
"We don't have an ocean," said Michel, who added that to many outsiders, Minnesota merely represents "flyover" country. "We need some things, [and] this is part of our stuff."
But Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, viewed the debate in another light. "Unfortunately, those trying to pick the pocket of the taxpayer seem to have a more effective lobby," he said of the Vikings.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-925-5045