The fate of a new Minnesota Vikings stadium was changed Wednesday – perhaps dramatically – when a Senate panel voted to have racino help fund the project.

The surprise political move would have the state’s $398 million share of the stadium project funded by not only money from electronic bingo and pull tabs but also by racino, which would authorize slot machines at the state’s horse racing tracks. Racino has long been debated at the state Capitol, but has generally been opposed by DFLers and Indian tribes who operate casinos in Minnesota.

The Senate Finance Committee, which debated the stadium legislation for more than six hours Wednesday before approving it, voted 11 to 3 to include both racino and electronic bingo and pull tabs as a state stadium funding source.

It remained unclear how the $1 billion stadium plan would be impacted by adding racino, and whether racino would survive attempts by opponents to remove it from the stadium legislation in the coming days.

But including racino threatened to upset the delicate political balance as Vikings stadium proponents search for legislative support, and the plan heads toward expected close floor votes in the House and Senate.

“I’m in trouble with racino going onto the bill,” said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the chief Senate author of the stadium legislation.

Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said including racino would also be problematic in gaining DFL votes, and might also face legal challenges. “You’ll have almost no votes from the [DFL] caucus” in the Senate, Cohen predicted.

Senate Republicans meanwhile spent much of the day mounting a vigorous challenge to the Vikings stadium plan, arguing that state taxpayers may ultimately have to pay for the project and that supporting it went against the party’s conservative principles.

The public subsidy package to build the stadium in downtown Minneapolis came under intense questioning from some of the Senate’s most conservative Republican members, who painted the project’s financing as shaky and the stadium as another example of big government spending.

The day’s stadium drama at the state Capitol was highlighted when Vikings stars Adrian Peterson, John Sullivan and Chad Greenway made an unexpected visit and were immediately surrounded by television cameras as they walked through the state Capitol rotunda.

At one point, as TV cameras recorded the event, Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, a key member of the Senate Taxes Committee, was invited to ride on a state Capitol elevator with Peterson and the other players.

In a surprise move the Senate Taxes Committee chair, Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, asked that the project go before her panel. As stadium supporters scrambled to assess the political implications of the move, Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said Ortman’s request was appropriate, and predicted the project would survive a committee vote.

“It’ll be fine,” Senjem said. “We’ve got the votes in Taxes.”

But conservatives in the Republican-controlled Senate were clearly trying to use Wednesday’s hearings to slow, and possibly derail, the stadium plan.

“The 2010 election, it seems to me, was pretty clear,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, a leading Senate conservative. “People wanted things to be done a different way – a different way being scaling back government and its influence in our lives.

Thompson however acknowledged that the stadium push at the state Capitol was being led by Republicans, including Rosen. “I like to say that you kind of pit ‘Country Club Republicans’ against ‘Limited Government Republicans’, like me,” he said.

Under the stadium plan, the Vikings would contribute $427 million to the project, the state would add $398 million and Minneapolis would contribute $150 million to the stadium’s construction. The team would also add $327 million over time to the stadium’s operating costs, and the city would add $189 million.

As the stadium plan was dissected again Wednesday by a Senate panel, one plan to possibly gain votes for the project – this time from St. Paul legislators -- failed.

St. Paul legislators had asked that debt payments by the city to the state for the city’s River Centre and Xcel Energy Center be forgiven. According to state officials, that would mean giving the city $43 million in 2014 to retire debt, and also cancelling another $34.75 million in city loan repayments.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said that, while he supported building a Vikings stadium in Minneapolis, the move would only widen the amount of support state officials have given to Minneapolis as compared to St. Paul. The stadium, said the St. Paul mayor, “can’t come at the expense of St. Paul.”

But Rosen said doing so, as part of the Vikings stadium package, would stretch state funding for the project to thin.
The stadium’s march toward floor votes in the House and Senate meanwhile continued.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, predicted Wednesday there will be enough DFL votes for the stadium plan to pass in the House – providing Republicans and DFLers agree to put up “yes” votes proportional to their numbers in the House.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House author of the stadium legislation, had earlier said that Republicans -- who hold a 72 to 61 majority in the House – would put up “yes’ votes proportional to their House numbers.

The Republicans’ 72 to 61 majority translates into a 54-46 percent edge.

Thissen said that means DFLers should put up “yes” votes totaling in the “high 20s or low 30s,” with Republicans supplying the remaining votes to get to the 68 votes needed for passage.

“If Representative Lanning is correct, I believe we can pass the bill,” Thissen said.