The quest by the Minnesota Vikings to get public support for a new stadium seemed to take a sharp turn into a brick wall Tuesday when Gov. Mark Dayton announced that any funding tied to a sales tax would require a referendum.
But there are always new twists and turns in Minnesota stadium sagas.
First, the governor’s message. Dayton said that following his meeting last Friday with legislative leaders that it was clear there would not be enough support to do a sales tax without a public vote.
“Given this reality, we are now actively assessing and discussing with the team other financing options,” said Dayton, who apparently has not yet given up on the idea of calling a special session late this month.
This decision – no sales tax without a referendum – does throw a huge obstacle into efforts by the Vikings and Ramsey County commissioners to build the stadium in Arden Hills, the first choice of the Vikings.
Neither the Vikings nor Ramsey County commissioners say they have given up on the Arden Hills location, and both say it remains their top choice.
The success of that whole Arden Hills deal, though, hinged on a sales tax and no referendum.
But does that mean the Vikings, whose lease at the Metrodome expires at the conclusion of this season, will start packing and head to sites unknown?
Of course not.
Stadium wheeling and dealing enters new phase
History makes it clear that stadium wheeling and dealing never really ends in Minnesota.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, the mastermind of the sales tax deal (with no referendum) that resulted in the Twins ballpark, said the governor’s statement is a major problem for the Arden Hills site.
But just because one door has closed, doesn’t mean that other doors can’t be opened.
“Where there’s a will, there’s always a way,” Opat said.
Will Hennepin County become a player, as it was in the Twins’ ballpark?
“I think there’s a scenario in which we could get involved,” Opat said.
But he added he doesn’t know yet what that might be and is waiting to see what might come out of a special session.
All options on the table carry substantial political problems.
Recall, just last week, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak zipped into the Capitol with a raft of graphs, charts and, most importantly, payment plans for a stadium.
His first choice for covering the “local partner” share of a stadium was a Minneapolis sales tax. But at the time, Rybak said that a sales tax approach would have to mean no referendum.
Option two, in Rybak’s mind, is a casino on Block E in downtown Minneapolis. Revenues from that project, he said, could cover the city portion of the stadium project at any one of three suggested locations.
Rybak and Barb Johnson, president of the City Council, were quick to come out with a statement regarding Dayton’s Tuesday announcement.
“We thank Governor Dayton and legislative leaders for their hard work on trying to resolve the Vikings stadium issue: If this problem were easy to solve, it would have been solved long ago.
“Their decision today reinforces the fact that Minneapolis remains the best location for the Vikings because it is the least expensive: All three stadium options that we’ve laid out are less expensive to build, less expensive for the team to operate and less expensive for fans than Arden Hills.”
So, in this twist of the Vikings’ stadium plot, Minneapolis would be the local partner, with funds drawn from a Block E casino.
But remember, that’s only the local partner.
The state, to date, has agreed on only one thing: The local partner can’t use a sales tax without a referendum to pay for a stadium. The Legislature, on the surface at least, hasn’t even begun to wrestle with how it would come up with its $300 million share for the stadium.
Gaming revenue back in play
Gaming long has been considered a potential source for the stadium, though it has powerful detractors.
But even if Alatus, the company that purchased the failed project and now wants to turn it into a casino, could get legislative approval to move ahead, could a casino fund both the local and state portions of the project?
According to an analyst familiar with sports facilities funding, a Block E casino could fund both the Minneapolis and state portions of a football stadium.
It is important to note that the Block E proposal has the support of many of the state’s major unions.
But it also faces fierce opposition from most in the Minneapolis legislative delegation and from religious leaders, right and left, and, of course, Indian tribes that run all of the casinos in Minnesota.
There are other proposals and ideas being kicked around in the governor’s office, all with political problems.
The one gambling format that might have the best chance of winning legislative approval is a move that would change charitable gambling, including pull tabs and bar bingo. Those games now exist in hundreds of bars in the state. Tax revenues from the games contributed $36 million to the state’s general fund.
Those bar owners — and the charitable organizations that receive support from proceeds — want to be able to use electronic devices to replace the paper now used to play the games. The claim is that revenue to the state likely could double if the change was made.
Proponents of this approach, which has the support of Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, point out that there are several advantages, starting with its previous approval by a handful of legislative committees.
Beyond that, they argue that moving to electronic devices isn’t an expansion of gambling, merely a change in the way the now-legal games are played.
They point out that charitable gaming “benefits” organizations across the state, unlike a state-sanctioned casino or proposed racinos, which require patrons to travel to the metro area to participate.
Finally, they point out this change would not face the legal battles that almost certainly will grow out of any effort to put a casino on Block E, or full-blown casinos at the state’s two horse tracks.
But legislative approval of the charitable gaming change would not cover the “local partner” share.
Legacy Fund money seems politically iffy
Outside of gaming and a sales tax, there has been some speculation that the state could turn to using money from the Legacy Fund amendment to pay for the stadium.
Dayton never has embraced the plan, but he hasn’t rejected it out of hand, either.
Still, most around the Capitol think that any effort to use those any of those funds for a football stadium would be hazardous to the political health of any who supported it.
There are other ideas, including some that make sense.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, for example, notes that the Vikings are enjoyed by people throughout the state. Therefore, he has a novel idea: People throughout the state should help fund the project.
Coleman reiterated his stance in the wake of Dayton’s Tuesday announcement.
“I applaud Gov. Dayton’s decision to remove the consideration of a local option sales tax to fund a Vikings stadium,” Coleman said in a statement. “It has always been my position that the Vikings are an asset to all of Minnesota, and the financial burden of building them a new stadium should not fall disproportionately on one region of Minnesota over another. I continue to believe a two-cent-per-drink statewide tax is the best funding mechanism for a new stadium and I look forward to seeing future legislative proposals to move the project forward.”
Of course, a hard core of Republicans in the Legislature have said NO to any tax increases of any sort. No matter how you mix it, a drink tax is a tax increase, meaning it would not go down easy at the Capitol.
Added up, what happened with Dayton’s comments today is that the stadium game changed. But it’s not over.
The governor is expected to come up with his proposal next week. He has options. There always are options.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.