State Sen. Ann Rest has seen all of this before — up close and personal. The meetings of legislative leaders with a governor. The meetings with the owners and pro sports commissioners. The efforts to ram a deal through a special session.
Rest, a DFLer from New Hope, was in the middle of all of this in 1996 when she took on the job of carrying a bill that supported a public subsidy of a new baseball park for the Minnesota Twins.
That task nearly ended her political career.
“Vicious,” she said of the campaign that followed her support of a ballpark bill, an election she won by only 300 votes.
During that election in 1998 — she was a state rep at the time — she promised voters that she never again would support state funding of a pro sports facility; a promise she intends to keep.
Stadium déjà vu
Fifteen years later, it’s stunning how everything looks almost the same.
This week, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who supports a stadium for the Vikings, is meeting with legislative leaders of the opposite party, who are showing little desire to go against public sentiment and push for stadium legislation.
The governor also is meeting with the majority owner of the Vikings, Zygi Wilf, and National Football League executives.
Among other things, the governor says he wants to convene a special session late next month. But that talk of a special session is loaded with caveats, the big one being that legislators have the votes to pass a bill that so far doesn’t really exist.
Dayton’s strategy is understandable. To schedule a special session near the Thanksgiving holiday might take some heat off legislators, who wouldn’t want Minnesotans to be paying too much attention to any deal that might be done. Beyond that, a special session at this time means that the issue won’t have to be dealt with next year, an election year.
Dayton said that if a deal can’t be done in a special session, he suspects nothing could happen until 2013 because of electioneering politics.
Additionally by suggesting he’s ready to call a special session, Dayton puts the ol’ pigskin on the Republicans’ side of the field. Essentially the governor is saying, “I’m ready to do something — how about you?”
Republican leaders aren’t exactly embracing the Dayton idea, other than to say that there would have to be some support from DFL legislators if there would be any chance of getting a deal done.
It should be noted that two Republicans — Rep. Morrie Lanning of Moorhead and Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont — have been trying to do the heavy lifting on a stadium bill.
“I have tremendous respect for both of them,” said Rest. “They are not frivolous people.”
She’s skeptical of special session
But a special session?
“I don’t think there’s a special session in the cards,” Rest said. “The majority leader [Sen. Amy Koch] and the speaker [Kurt Zellers] have to put their might behind it.”
That’s not happening.
To date, it’s unlikely that even if they were inclined to support a stadium that either Koch or Zellers could get much support for a stadium deal from their own caucuses, which are so influenced by anti-tax Tea Party thought.
Mostly, the two leaders have been attempting to duck the issue.
Both have gone on record saying that a referendum should be required of any effort for a special local sales tax to help fund a stadium.
And prior to Dayton’s meeting with Koch and Zellers, Michael Brodkorb, the communications director for Senate Republicans and a booming voice of the caucus, suggested it’s the governor’s job to come up with a site recommendation. Brodkorb went so far as to say the governor must come up with how much he thinks the state’s contribution to a stadium project would be.
In other words, legislative leaders don’t seem eager to be partners with Dayton in trying to come up with a solution.
All of this is so familiar to Rest.
In 1996, she was working with a Republican governor, Arne Carlson, for a Twins stadium. The DFL controlled both the Senate and House at the time, but Rest said the leaders were shy about taking strong leadership positions.
At the time, Rest, Carlson and a handful of others were attempting to come up with a relatively painless way for the state to partially fund a Twins’ ballpark.
“We just couldn’t get a grip on the cash flow we needed,” said Rest.
Under the plan she attempted to push, a myriad of taxes — on sports memorabilia, rental cars, sports tickets — were floated in an attempt to reach consensus among legislators, but they found it more politically expedient to just say no.
Following the Rest/Carlson stadium push of 1996, Carlson tried hard again in 1998, calling a special session to deal with the ballpark.
The session was held. Nothing happened.
Then and now, the idea of getting “easy money” from a state-run casino or racinos always floats in the background.
Her take on what’s ahead
From her unique position as a legislator who once was a key player in stadium politics, Rest offered three key observations in a Monday interview:
— Racinos or a state-run casino to fund a stadium won’t happen.
Even if a majority of legislators could be found to support the gambling expansion as a way to come up with stadium money, there are two problems, Rest said.
First, any effort to get the state involved in gaming would somehow have to be tied to the state’s lottery authority. And that almost certainly would lead to a court challenge by either the tribes or an organization such as the Minnesota Family Council. A court case could go on for more than a year.
“It could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Rest said.
The other problem with using gambling money to fund such a project would be the demands of bonding houses, Rest said. Bonding houses want stable, dependable income in support of bonds. Gaming isn’t considered stable.
That means that under normal circumstances, bonding houses seek 115 percent coverage of a bond. But if the revenue backing the bond comes from gaming, bonding houses likely would expect 140 percent coverage. That means, if the state were to contribute $40 million a year for its share of the stadium, the gaming revenue stream would need to be in the neighborhood of $60 million.
— She doesn’t think Arden Hills, the Vikings’ choice for a stadium/development, will have the support of either the Hennepin County or Ramsey County legislative delegations.
Not only will Ramsey County legislators choke on the one-county half-cent sales tax, but delegations from both the Minneapolis and St. Paul delegations are queasy about what the Wilfs have in mind for the Arden Hills site.
Although the Vikings have attempted to deny they have a convention center in mind for the site, a map showing such a center was recently distributed. St. Paul and Minneapolis don’t want another convention competitor.
“It doesn’t create new economic activity — it just displaces current activity,” Rest said.
To have both counties’ delegations united against something is unusual, Rest pointed out.
When the Twins ballpark play finally was passed by the Legislature — a decade after Rest’s effort — most Hennepin County legislators opposed the plan, while most Ramsey County legislators supported it. That split was easy to understand: It was Hennepin County residents being nicked with the sales tax, not Ramsey County residents.
— A stadium eventually will be built.
There are a couple of wild cards in Rest’s assumption of an eventual deal.
The big question is about the Wilfs.
Despite all the huffing and puffing and threats made by the Pohlads, Rest said she always was convinced that they would not move the Twins.
“I never thought they would leave because the Pohlad family had such a deep connection to Minnesota,” Rest said. “You don’t know that about the Wilfs.”
She also believes that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty blew a huge chance to have this ugly stadium business behind us.
“Had he been more engaged,” Rest said, “the Vikings would have been included in the Gophers stadium plan. An engaged governor would have brought those parties into a room and worked it out.”
The deal would have been a single, domed football stadium for both teams.
But Pawlenty’s sights were set, long ago, on loftier things, she believes. Doing something that might have been that politically unpopular was not in his playbook.
Still, she thinks something can get worked out.
It could be a long shot, such as a state referendum. She noted that voters overwhelmingly support a tax on themselves for the arts and conservation. Perhaps, ultimately, they would support a statewide effort to preserve the Vikings.
“To some people, that special thing is a state park; to others, it may be sports teams,” she said.
More likely, though, she thinks that Minneapolis/Hennepin County will step forward. She could see, for example, the extension of taxes currently earmarked to pay off the convention center.
“There’s not nearly the heat on extending a tax as there is on adding a tax,” she said.
But the ritual of getting to a solution will be little different now from 15 years ago, she predicted. There will be more meetings, more demagoguery, more ducking for political cover.
“[DFL Sen.] John Marty will say there are hungry kids out there,” she predicted. “He’ll say, ‘How can we build a stadium for millionaires when there are hungry kids?’ But there are things that lift the spirit, too.”
These days, though, the Vikings hardly lift Minnesota spirits. Still, only a handful of legislators would be “frivolous” enough to allow a bad season to dictate state policy.
“Someday, there will be a stadium,” she said. “But a huge domino has to fall into place. I just don’t know what that is yet.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.