The Minnesota Vikings' quest for a new stadium barely survived its most difficult test Friday, when a key Senate panel narrowly voted to push the project ahead. That sets up what could be a ferocious fight for votes in the full House and Senate.

The Senate Taxes Committee voted 7-6 to move the bill ahead, but the Vikings got a vivid preview of how difficult it will be to win final approval for a $1 billion stadium. Some Republicans teamed with DFL stadium opponents during the long, bruising hearing.

Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said afterward that the full Senate may vote on the bill Sunday, with a House floor vote coming as early as Saturday. "We've got to soak this up a little bit," Senjem said.

Senjem noted that the stadium project could move ahead in the Senate even without an overall end-of-session agreement on a range of other issues that include taxes and bonding.

The stadium proposal has passed six House and Senate panels in the past month, but its path continues to be uncertain. Nearly all the votes have been without recommendation and many have come on simple voice votes that allowed legislators to skip going on record with their individual positions.

"I knew this was a tough committee. They vetted it through pretty well, they hopefully got it off their chest and we'll move to the floor," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the bill's chief Senate stadium author after the marathon six-hour hearing. Rosen said she believes the bill will pass the full Senate.

Funding still a sticking point

The stadium's biggest hurdle might be a last-minute proposal to rely on user fees rather than money from electronic pulltabs and bingo in bars and restaurants as a means of paying the state's $398 million share. The idea, adopted at one point by the panel and later dropped after a series of abrupt political maneuvers, still has supporters.

"I do think this is the heart of the question Minnesotans are asking," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, the Senate Taxes Committee chair, referring to whether the stadium could be financed by user fees rather than expanded gambling.

But supporters of user fees said they needed more time to provide details of how high the fees would need to be. Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, said swapping state revenue plans at such a late hour would likely scuttle the project.

"This really rips out the backbone" of the state's funding plan, Michel said of the user-fee proposal.

As a large and confused crowd watched the Senate panel's final moments, the committee recessed, putting the project in political jeopardy. It reconvened moments later and immediately adopted the stadium's public subsidy package without substantial changes.

Supporters gained another crucial victory when the panel tossed out a controversial plan to put video slot machines at the state's horse racing tracks as a means of funding the stadium. Rosen said that plan, known as racino, would sink the stadium bill. "Perhaps that is exactly what is intended," she said.

With time running short at the Capitol, Vikings officials sat glumly as legislative opponents spent hours intensely questioning what had been seen as relatively minor -- and, to some, generally accepted -- parts of the project's subsidy package.

In one surprising move, the Senate panel voted to deny a tax exemption for building materials and supplies and came within one vote of requiring the stadium to pay property taxes, even though the facility would be publicly owned. The exemptions are considered standard for publicly owned facilities.

"How many other public buildings in the state of Minnesota pay property taxes?" demanded a frustrated Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook. "This would be the only one."

State officials and private financial experts have repeatedly assured lawmakers that the funding plan relying on electronic bingo and pulltabs is feasible, but some legislators doubt it. Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, called the revenue estimates "fairy dust numbers."

Ortman said her own son has been asking whether she would support the project. "He's been working his mom," she said.

"The Vikings are an asset," Ortman told the panel. "They are an important part of the economy. But they ask us to do some extraordinary things on their behalf. We have thousands of businesses in the state of Minnesota that are struggling, [and] ordinarily it is not good tax policy to pick one business over another."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673