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‘No!’ is current Capitol answer to a public subsidy for Vikings stadium

This morning, a bipartisan coalition of legislators opposed increased state-sanctioned gambling as a way to fund a stadium, or for any other purpose.Related: Rybak pitches 3 stadium plans, but big sales job ahead

“Just say ‘No’ ” seems to be the operative phrase at the state Capitol these days regarding any form of public subsidy for a Vikings stadium.

This morning, a coalition of Republican and DFL legislators held a news conference to announce their opposition to more state-sanctioned gambling as a way to create a pot of money for a stadium, or for any other purpose.

The philosophical range of the group was breathtaking: Sen. Dave Thompson, from the libertarian right, to Rep. Frank Hornstein, from the progressive left — and a lot of political shades in between.

All were of one voice on increased gambling: “No.”

Group opposing all public stadium subsidies
When pressed further, those at the news conference — DFL Reps. Hornstein, Ann Lenczewski, Jim Davnie, Diane Loeffler, DFL Sens. Scott Dibble and Tony Lourey and GOP Sens. Thompson, Warren Limmer and David Hann — said they would oppose all forms of public subsidy for a Vikings’ stadium.

Sen. Scott Dibble
Sen. Scott Dibble

“None of us wants to see the Vikings leave,” said Hann, which is a ritualistic thing for legislators to say.

But then he went on to say that pro sports teams should not be allowed “to blackmail the public. … This [huge subsidy] is not done for other businesses. Why should it be done for the Vikings?”

This group of legislators said they wanted to focus on their opposition to gambling as a revenue source for any public project, not talk about the Vikings. But, of course, at this moment the two are entirely linked.

Given the anti-tax sentiment of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, those seeking a way to get funds for a stadium project are looking for some other source for a state contribution.

At this point, finding a majority of legislators who can agree on a way to get the state involved in the Vikings project seems nearly impossible.

One possible way would seem to be racinos. Over the years, proposals for expanding gambling at the state’s two racetracks have drawn overwhelming public support in polls. That plan, though, has significant opposition from Indians tribes that operate casinos and from spiritual leaders.

If racinos — or a Block E casino — can’t get support, what can?

There has, of course, been some talk of directing Legacy Fund money to the project.

A headline in the Star Tribune this morning read: “Dayton eyes Legacy funds for stadium.”

But even the mention of somehow linking the Vikings to money that is, under the amendment, to be directed to arts and culture has drawn quick, vociferous opposition from legislators.

When the subject of legacy money was brought up to Dayton at a news conference on Wednesday, his response was positive in only one regard. The governor said he’s interested in looking at any proposal that shows a can-do spirit.

“I appreciate the spirit [of the legacy suggestion],” Dayton said. That wasn’t exactly an endorsement.

Frustrated governor finding few allies
The governor’s great frustration is that there are very few people coming forward with ideas that might work. He’s surrounded, however, by legislators willing to shoot down all ideas.

“If this is driven by those who oppose something or everything,” the outcome could be that the region will lose the Vikings, Dayton said.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was to present ideas at a news conference this afternoon for putting Minneapolis into the stadium game. But Rybak is expected mostly to refine a proposal that involve a sales tax in Minneapolis.

He not only seems to have little support for that on his own City Council but also seems to have little support — if any — from the Minneapolis legislative delegation.

That, of course, is what makes the stadium debate so interesting. At the moment, it’s so easy to say “no.” There will be a lot of ducking for cover if the Vikings actually move the franchise.

All of this makes it clear why Dayton is pushing for the special session. He’s demanding that legislators show their hands.  Up or down on the Vikings. Up means a solution. Down means possibly losing an immensely popular amenity.

Republicans clearly see they’ve been put on a spot by the governor, and they’re trying to counter.

Hann, for example, seems to believe the governor is “rushing” to hold a special session in advance of the next state economic forecast. Most believe that forecast will not be positive, meaning the state’s duct-taped budget will be back in red ink.

Sen. David Hann
Sen. David Hann

If the budget forecast does show a deficit, Hann believes, there would be absolutely no appetite for spending money on a stadium.

Special session speculation
Best bet on a special session?

Dayton will call it. There will be a piece of legislation — calling for a myriad of user taxes to be applied to the stadium — and it will be voted down. There will be a series of amendments, proposing such things as gaming to fund the project.

A source for charitable gaming said today that he thinks that one form of gambling — pull tabs in bars and bar bingo — could slide through. The charitable gambling crowd believes it could substantially improve its business and therefore its contribution to the state if a bill allowing electronic pull tabs and bingo was passed.

Currently, charitable gaming puts about $40 million annually into the state general fund. Supporters of electronic forms of the old games believe that amount could double.

Even though this measure has support from a handful of powerful legislators, it seems unlikely it could wiggle through a special session.

So, if everything remains “no,” what happens?  

If the Twins stadium fight is the model the Vikings stadium debate will follow, the debate will go on for at least a couple of more years. If the North Stars or the Lakers are the model, the team will leave.   

Oh, how pols hate having to decide between two unpopular things.

Which again made this morning’s anti-gaming news conference — and the cross section of pols who attended — so interesting.

Start with the libertarian/Republican Thompson.

Libertarians generally believe that people should have a right to choose how they live their lives and spend their money.

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Much of the public support for expanded gambling seems to be based on the notion that nobody is forced to walk into a casino and lose money.

“I have no problem with people having a poker game in their garage,” said Thompson. “But to me, that’s different than having the state put its seal of approval on gambling.”

If that garage poker game grows to include slot machines and a craps table, would Thompson have a problem? Would he want taxes collected?

“At some point, I suppose it does become a business,” Thompson said.

Wherever that point, the state does have the right to create regulations that guide the business.

Hann also seemed to want to hold two different positions at the same time.

At one point, he talked about how the “majority of Minnesotans” are so frustrated about the idea of having to spend scarce resources for professional football.

Still, he rejects racinos, which the majority of Minnesotans seems to believe are reasonable.

Gambling expansion  ‘negatives’ listed
Hann and others seem to believe that supporters of racinos don’t realize how costly gaming is — costly and regressive.
Hann said that studies he’s read show that 48 percent of casino profits come from problem gamblers.

“Look, if a casino is such a good idea, why not encourage more than one?” he said.

Lenczewski was every bit as adamant in her opposition.

“It will create more problems than it solves,” she said of gaming, adding that it’s essentially a “super tax on a subset.”

Additionally, she said there would be a substantial “displacement cost” that comes with gaming. Every time gamblers lose at the casino, it’s less money being used elsewhere, meaning a drop in sales taxes.

Davnie, too, was adamant in his opposition, predicting that a casino in downtown Minneapolis would create “a hole in the city.”

At first, a Block E casino would attract a “suit-and-tie” clientele. But in time, that would diminish and the clientele would “go down a notch” and then “go down another notch.” And the social problems would grow.

The legislators were receiving the support of the Joint Religious Coalition and the Minnesota Family Council, again two groups that seldom agree on anything.

Dayton is to meet with legislative leaders Friday. At this point, it appears that none of the leaders has any plan with any real support.

“We should treat the Vikings like any other business,” said Hann.

That means they should get sales tax breaks on construction materials, public support for infrastructure, perhaps some form tax relief in other areas.

“That’s what we do,” he said.

The big gamble: Is that enough?

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.