Mayor R.T. Rybak said Thursday that Minneapolis can invest $338 million in a new Vikings stadium without triggering a referendum, despite a charter mandate that calls for a citywide vote on any sports subsidy of $10 million or more.

The 15-year-old referendum requirement looms as likely the biggest city obstacle to a stadium deal. Rybak wants to avoid it, saying people can vote him out if they don't like his decisions. A majority of the City Council believes the public should have a direct say, and some warned that bypassing a referendum could land the stadium deal in court.

Rybak wants to fund the city's contribution to the 30-year project by redirecting hospitality taxes -- sales, liquor, lodging and restaurant -- now paying for debt and operations at the city's Convention Center. That debt will be paid in 2020.

Stadium backers argued that step would merely reclaim state-authorized taxes for other uses, so there would be no legal grounds for a referendum.

"These are state dollars," Rybak said. "And the state imposes them on the city, and the state has control over them in the city."

Council Member Gary Schiff called that argument "absurd." "We once had a governor who believed by calling something a fee that it wasn't a tax," said Schiff, who co-authored the amendment language in 1997.

Parsing the language

Council Member Cam Gordon, an opponent of the mayor's plan, said proponents of the stadium sound "like they're playing kind of legalese or artfully cooking up some way to get around" the referendum.

Gordon suggested pursuing that strategy will invite lawsuits and mean "some judge is going to have to determine it."

Schiff and Gordon were undeterred by the new interpretation of the charter, but it needs to sway only one member of the seven-person majority bloc for Rybak to win sufficient support on the council.

City Attorney Susan Segal offered her legal backing. Since the state would "retain" the taxes for the stadium, Segal said in a statement, "the taxes would be outside the control of the City and our charter provisions."

Gov. Mark Dayton's chief negotiator for the stadium deal, Ted Mondale, agreed: "The money is never touched by the city. The state in the end spends the money. So therefore the city's not spending money."

Arena out of stadium plan

Thursday's news also raised questions about another linchpin of the deal for Rybak, the future of Target Center. Rybak has tied his support for a Vikings stadium proposal to improvements at the aging home of the NBA's Timberwolves, but he said the two issues would now be addressed in separate pieces of legislation.

That may jeopardize the plan to renovate and pay debt on the 22-year-old city-owned facility, which Rybak has seen as a means to lower city property taxes. The new arrangement will likely please some legislators, however, who said including Target Center in the Vikings bill would cost their votes.

Rybak maintains that the fate of both proposals remains intertwined, since eliminating Target Center from the proposal would cost council votes for the stadium plan. "If we don't have both of those together, we won't be able to pass [this]," he said.

According to a terms sheet released Thursday, the companion legislation will authorize the city to use Convention Center taxes "in support of capital projects or for other economic development purposes."

Several stadium opponents argue that the city already has that authority under a 2009 law. But Rybak said there will be no excess money to spend unless the stadium deal passes. His spokesman later added that the deal ensures the taxes remain in place after the Convention Center debt is paid.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper