A day after the House approved a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, the Senate began its own contentious debate Tuesday on the project with several key changes.

One involved adding user fees to help pay for the project and another – after two hours of debate – basically assured that the stadium would not face a referendum in Minneapolis and that money spent on remodeling the city-owned Target Center as part of the Vikings stadium plan would be exempt from a referendum.

But in another sign that the Vikings were in a bruising political fight at the state Capitol, the Senate stripped language that would give Vikings owner Zygi Wilf or anyone else whose family are owners of the football team an exclusive right for five years to bring in a professional soccer team to the new stadium.

The chief Senate stadium author meanwhile unveiled a series of new user fees – a departure from what the House passed late Monday -- that would be used to help pay the state’s share of the $1 billion project. The bulk of the state's share would be paid by allowing electronic bingo and pull tabs in Minnesota's bars and restaurants.

But the new user fees proposed by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, seemed to be a concession to a relatively large bloc of Senate members who want the fees to help pay for part of the controversial project. The team however has generally been opposed to user fees.

The user fees include a 10 percent fee on the sale or rental of stadium suites, a 10 percent fee on parking within a half mile of the stadium during National Football League events and a 6.875 percent fee on team jerseys and other league-licensed products sold at the stadium.

Another change would have the state retain the naming rights for an outdoor plaza at the stadium, which would be located at the Metrodome site in downtown Minneapolis. “The naming rights are just for the plaza, not for the stadium,” said Rosen, who said the team would retain the stadium's more lucrative naming rights.

In addition, said Rosen, there would be a sports-themed lottery scratch off game that would generate at least $2.1 million annually. “We actually think that is going to be higher than that,” she said.

Should the referendum language and the user fees and lottery game pass the Senate on Tuesday, House-Senate conferees would meet to try to reach a compromise on the two versions of the stadium public subsidy package.

In another stark contrast, the Senate early in its debate Tuesday unanimously voted to increase the Vikings stadium contribution by $25 million, from $427 million to $452 million. The state’s contribution, by comparison, would drop by $25 million to $373 million.

On Monday, the House voted to increase the team’s share by a much larger amount – a move the Vikings oppose.
The House proposal would increase the team’s contribution by $105 million, from $427 million to $532 million. The state’s share, under the House plan, would drop to $293 million.

The Senate debate began Tuesday after Republicans, who hold a majority in the Senate, were locked in a protracted, closed-door debate on the stadium. The meeting may indicate that Senate DFLers -- like DFLers in the House -- might have to provide large numbers of votes to pass a stadium project that is a top priority of Gov. Mark Dayton, a DFLer, but is opposed by many Republicans.

When the House approved a public subsidy package for the stadium by a 73 to 58 vote late Monday, DFLers provided 40 of the 73 votes despite being in the minority in the House.

As the Senate debate began Tuesday, Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, reminded his colleagues what he saw as the main issue. “Do you want to keep a NFL franchise?” he asked, referring to the fear the Vikings might leave the state without a new stadium.

Replied Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights: “I’d like to find out where all these places [are] the Vikings are going to move to?”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Michel.

“We’ve been threatened, threatened, threatened,” said Goodwin. “I think we’re scaring a lot of people for no good reason, at this point.”

Although the debate in the end did not alter the project, the Senate spent hours trying to unravel the stadium’s complicated impact on the Minneapolis city charter. Under the city charter, a referendum is required when the city spends at least $10 million on a sports facility.

At one point Tuesday, the Senate by a 36 to 30 margin said the stadium project could not “preempt, override or waive” a city charter amendment requiring a voter referendum in Minneapolis when at least $10 million is spent on a sports facility.  Stadium proponents tried -- and succeeded -- in removing the language later in the day amid concerns the vote could mean a stadium referendum in Minneapolis.

Stadium supporters have long argued that avoiding a Minneapolis referendum – which in itself could produce a defeat for the project -- is vital to the Vikings stadium project going forward.

Rosen and other stadium proponents have said that a referendum was not triggered under the city charter because local taxes being used for the stadium were not new taxes, but existing taxes that were being diverted to the project.

Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, argued that the city charter included many outdated points, including one concerning cutting ice out of the city’s lakes. A charter provision requiring a referendum when at least $10 million is spent on sports facilities, she added, was another. “Let’s all not get wound up about the city charter,” she said.

“It’s a way to kill the bill,” added Sen. Ken Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis.

But Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, a stadium opponent, said that sidestepping the referendum in order to build the stadium was disingenuous. “What this language [voiding the referendum] says to voters is, ‘You don’t matter.'

“[It says], ‘We’re going to cover our ears because we don’t care,’ “ he added.

Afterward, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said the city was on firm legal ground in arguing that the referendum did not apply to the Vikings stadium, and could be waived regarding Target Center. "The plan we have does not violate the charter," the mayor said.