Taxpayer dollars spent to build sports stadiums for professional teams are an economic waste of money. Study after study proves this. Yet demands to provide public money to build a new Vikings stadium refuse to die. Why? The reason is simple — Zygi Wilf and the Vikings have spent millions lobbying and in political donations to persuade the governor and legislators to give them a new stadium — and the investment may be paying off.
Wilf took principal ownership in the Vikings in 2005. According to records filed with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, since 2006 the Vikings have spent $2.82 million in lobbying, including $1.16 million in Wilf’s first year as owner. In his first five years as Vikings owner Wilf has averaged $564,000 per year lobbying.
Complete data for the first half of 2011 is not available and we will not know what the Vikings spent this year until next January. However, the Vikings did employ five lobbyists who disbursed nearly $29,000 lobbying. Lobbyist disbursements are merely a tip of the iceberg in total lobbying expenses, and there is every reason to think the Vikings spent way in excess of the $564,000 average.
But lobbying is not the only way to use money; contributions to candidates and to the legislative caucuses, too, are smart investments. Just look at 2010 alone. Zygi Wilf and his family made contributions totaling $17,000 to candidates for governor or the Legislature in 2010. They covered all the major gubernatorial candidates, including a total of $3,000 to Mark Dayton and $1,000 to Tom Bakk. Lester Bagley, principal lobbyist for the Vikings, added another $1,850 to this.
But contributions do not stop there. In 2006, Wilf and the Vikings spent a million plus dollars on lobbying but nothing on political contributions. In 2008 the Vikings, Wilf, and his family spread $18,500 among the legislative caucuses. And then in 2010, the Wilfs gave $27,600 to all four legislative caucuses. Bagley made contributions of $1,850 to the Republican House and Senate caucuses, as well as to the Chamber of Commerce and to the Third (Tom Saxhaug) and Sixth District Senate DFL (Tom Bakk) caucuses. These 2010 contributions represent a significant ramping up of Wilf’s political activity to get a stadium.
Given the spending on lobbyists, political donations to the caucuses and political candidates, it is no surprise that Gov. Dayton and legislators are pushing for a new Vikings stadium. Wilf and the Vikings have spent a few million to reap hundreds of millions in public subsidies and eventually more in terms of profits from the new stadium.
Not a bad investment. It is this spending by Zygi Wilf that explains why the debate for a public stadium persists.
David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE), and he blogs at Schultz’s Take.