The Minnesota Vikings have agreed to spend $477 million —$50 million more than they had planned — to get a new stadium under a deal that was given final House approval early Thursday morning.
The results of a furious, final stadium negotiating session were released after hours of closed-door meetings Wednesday, in which top lawmakers conferred with the Vikings and the state’s top business leaders out of public view.
The Senate, which had earlier passed different versions of the stadium plan, was expected to take a final stadium vote later Thursday.
As months of intense stadium politics at the State Capitol neared an end, the House voted 71 to 60 for the revised financing plan after a debate that finished at 3:30 in the morning.
The Vikings embraced the revised deal and on behalf of team owner Zygi Wilf expressed gratitude for the political effort that produced the stadium plan.
"The Vikings and the Wilfs have stepped up ... and made a huge commitment to Minnesota," added Lester Bagley, the team's vice president.
The final House vote left many legislators emotionally torn. “I’ve never voted for anything like this,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, a 22-year House member. “[But] I am going to vote for this.
“I represent a blue-collar community,” said Mariani. “I hear and feel the pressure [to] bring jobs and some hope back to my neighbors.” He said his stadium vote – giving a large public subsidy to a wealthy pro football team owner -- was in stark contrast to his philosophy to vote “for taxing the rich every possible chance I get.”
Others continued until the very end to convince their colleagues that the stadium project was heavily flawed. Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said the final stadium proposal required state officials to keep the team’s financial data private even though the public needs to know the information. “Will the public ever know [what] the team receives for naming rights” for the stadium, she asked.
The day's events left even the key stadium supporters expressing doubts about the closed process. "I would like to have a normal process here, but the timing that we have makes that impossible," said Rep. Morrie Lanning , R-Moorhead, the chief author of the stadium bill in the House. "Unfortunately, we didn't have that kind of time."
As the day ran into the night, lawmakers scrambled from meeting to meeting. Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a stadium negotiator from Alexandria, at one point blazed out of a closed office rebuffing calls to open the meetings. "We are making sure we have not had" enough people in the room to require a public meeting, he said.
As the Legislature moved toward adjournment, Republican leaders met privately to not only splice together a final stadium agreement but also use a new, stripped-down package of tax breaks as a possible end-of-session bargaining chip.
The Vikings new share of the $1 billion stadium was set at more than the $427 million the team had agreed to earlier this spring, but less than the $532 million the House voted in favor of two nights ago. The Senate had earlier voted to have the team pay $452 million plus agree to a series of user fees.
Lanning defended the state's efforts to get the Vikings to pay more for a new publicly owned stadium amid reports the team might leave Minnesota. "We have driven a very hard bargain," he said.
The plan created by the House-Senate conference committee would impose a series of so-called blink-on taxes should revenues from electronic bingo and pull tabs fall short of covering the state share of the stadium bill. But the report generally maintained that electronic bingo and pull tabs -- despite doubts from many legislators -- would generate enough stadium money.
The backup revenue sources include a 10 percent admissions tax on stadium luxury seats and a sports-themed lottery game predicted to produce at least $2.1 million per year.
The House-Senate compromise would also restore exclusive, five-year rights for the Vikings to obtain a professional soccer franchise that would play at the new roofed stadium in downtown Minneapolis.Tax plan advanced
The day's stadium drama came as legislators also wrestled with a last-minute attempt to reach a tax agreement with Dayton.
Tax committee members rolled out $46 million in tax cuts through next year that dramatically reduces the potential impact on the budget from the previous plan that Dayton had vetoed.
"We want to get a tax bill signed," said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, chairman of the House Taxes Committee.
Republicans have made business tax breaks a signature initiative this legislative session and those breaks are a top priority of Minnesota business groups. Dayton had swiftly rejected a more robust version last Friday, saying it gave out a buffet of tax breaks without paying for them, blowing a nearly $200 million hole in the budget over the next few years.
Davids and other tax committee members returned with a new bill with a much lower price tag, about $119 million through 2015. It won House approval Wednesday afternoon and passed the Senate early Thursday. It now heads back to the governor's desk, where it faces an uncertain fate.
The day's private meetings gave stadium opponents new reasons to criticize the stadium plan and also worried others who wondered whether too much secret dealmaking was being done on a project that involved hundreds of millions in taxpayer money.
"It's pretty evident that the Vikings organization is calling the shots," said Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, a stadium plan opponent. "They're dictating what they will and will not accept."
The conference committee report generally left intact Minneapolis' $150 million stadium construction contribution and the complicated financing surrounding it.
Addressing another topic that stadium opponents said could ultimately increase taxpayer costs, the House-Senate recommended that the publicly owned stadium be operated in a "first-class manner" that would be "consistent with other comparable" National Football League stadiums.
Even before the Vikings stadium legislation was introduced in the Senate on March 12, opponents had complained that the project was given special privileges at the state Capitol.
As the plan wound its way through a series of House and Senate panels -- and in one instance was voted down -- stadium supporters tried to steer the proposal to committees that would adopt the plan without forcing legislators to cast individual votes.
At one point, after five House and Senate panels debated and passed the stadium plan, three had passed it on simple voice votes. In one of the two hearings where there was a roll call vote, forcing lawmakers to make their vote public, the plan failed.
Throughout the past month the team publicly resisted any major changes to an agreement that had been reached two months earlier with a group that included Ted Mondale, Dayton's top stadium negotiator. Even as the House, and then the Senate, voted to have the team pay more for the project, Bagley said the team was sticking with its $427 million contribution.
As the Senate debated the stadium on Tuesday, Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said that those who wanted to make changes to the agreement were criticized for threatening the plan. "[We keep being told], "We cut a deal.' Now, that ought to scare the jacket right off your back," said Nienow, an opponent of the stadium plan. "Somebody, somewhere, cut a deal and that means you got to vote a certain way."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, defended the private stadium meetings.
"It's not unlike the process that's been used with the working group for the last year and a half," he said.
Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, also a member of the House-Senate conference committee, added that "there are a lot of moving parts to it."
One of those parts is the option of having a retractable roof, included in the new agreement for a stadium.
So will they have one?
“It’s going to be difficult with a $975 million budget” for the stadium, Bagley said early Thursday after a House-Senate agreement on the project was released. “It’s still an option, an opportunity.
“That’s to be determined,” he added.
Lanning said the Vikings might push for a retractable roof because the team was also given exclusive rights for five years to obtain a professional soccer team franchise. The team would play in the new stadium.
“To have a soccer team, they’d like to open [the stadium] up,” said Lanning.
Staff writers Baird Helgeson and Jim Ragsdale contributed to this report.
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