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Hennepin County may be the key to a final Vikings stadium deal

Can a $1 billion stadium project be threaded through the eye of a political needle?

For all the headlines about a site being (almost) selected, about the Vikings feeling “optimistic,” about lead legislators close to unveiling a stadium bill, the process is still in the very early stages.

“Think Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat of the Greek mythological figure.

Many believe that Opat, who put together the Target Field funding mechanism, and the Hennepin County Board still are the key to any stadium deal.

One state senator, Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, suggested that the board might be able to “adjust” upward the sales tax used to fund the baseball park to help pay for a football stadium.

That “adjustment” might not need legislative approval, Higgins said.

“I won’t say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to that,” Opat said.

Opat doesn’t like Dome site

What he will say is he doesn’t believe the headlines suggesting that the state is moving close to a stadium resolution.

The current concepts, he said, include too many “fill-in-the-blanks. There’s a need for a plan with many of those blanks filled in.”

The county’s not ready to step forward – especially if the Metrodome site is the only Minneapolis site left on the table. Opat favors the Farmers’ Market site.

“I think it [the Metrodome site] is bad urban planning,” Opat said.

Still long way to go

All of this  leads Opat to believe that a stadium bill getting through this session is “a long, long shot.”

Recently retired Twins President Jerry Bell shares Opat’s belief that passing a stadium bill this session seems “very unlikely.”

Opat and Bell base their observations on experience. In 2006, the two managed to thread the legislative needle in getting legislation needed for the construction of Target Field.

Difficult as getting the baseball park plan through the Legislature in 2006 was, it was like pushing a pebble up the hill, compared with the Vikings’ wishes. Not only was the ballpark far less expensive than the projected cost of the football stadium ($392 million vs. $918 million), but no state money was needed.The final ballpark plan only needed the Legislature to waive a needed Hennepin County referendum on raising the county’s sales tax by 0.15 percent.

Still, after a decade of failed efforts, the final proposal was a grind.

“I think we had to appear before 13, maybe it was 15, Senate and House committees,” recalled Bell. “Toward the end, I knew more about the Capitol and the process than some of the freshmen legislators who were on some of the committees. There were freshmen who wanted to know where the bathrooms were. I knew. They didn’t.’

Assume that legislative leads Sen. Julie Rosen and Rep. Morrie Lanning can come up with a stadium bill. The bill would go first to the rules committees in the House and Senate. From there, it likely would be handed to various committees within those two bodies affected by the bill.

The committees could include Ways and Means, Tax, Local Government, Transportation and,  presumably, others. In each committee, amendments could be added to the stadium bill.

Opat recalls that at one committee during the last, and ultimately successful, baseball park push, a suburban legislator opposed to any form of public subsidy was prepared to offer  57 amendments to what had been a simple bill.

“It was her way of trying to filibuster the thing to death,” Opat said. “Eventually, the chairman of that committee said, ‘No more,’ and she withdrew her final 48 amendments.”

Twins’ Bell recalls rigorous committee sessions

Bell recalls being called back to the House Tax Committee repeatedly — and repeatedly being brow-beaten by the committee chairman, Ron Abrams, who now is a Hennepin County judge.

When you add the impact of redistricting forcing all legislators to face election this fall, the tedious process — the stadium boulder — gets even bigger.

Making matters even more difficult for those supporting public support of a stadium is the reality that a stadium bill is just one part of a controversial mix.

In this case, Gov. Mark Dayton already has said that the state’s funding tool for the stadium likely would be revenues from electronic pull tabs. That form of gambling expansion is supposed to be the easiest for the Legislature to pass, in part because the tribes are not outwardly opposing the idea and, in part, because electronic pull tabs have gone through some legislative committees.

Still, any form of gambling expansion is going to face opposition from some members of both parties. That means more hearings.

Beyond morality questions, there will be bottom-line questions about whether electronic pull tabs can muster the sort of revenue needed to support the state’s $300 million portion of the stadium.

To attempt to fund the stadium with something like racinos would mean more revenue, but also far more lobbying heat from the tribes and from groups who oppose gambling. That means more committee hearings, more time, more controversy.

Minneapolis Charter problems, too

And all of this might pale compared to the heat that surrounds the Minneapols Charter. In 1997, city residents, by an overwhelming margin, passed a charter amendment requiring a referendum if the city were to spend more than $10 million for any sports facility.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak says the Legislature would need to nullify that amendment in order for his funding plan to work. (That plan calls on “extending” the current entertainment/liquor/hotel sales taxes now used to pay off convention center bonds to pay off the local share of a stadium.)

But remember, this is an anti-tax Legislature. Legislative leaders made it clear to Ramsey County officials that any tax proposal to fund the Vikings stadium in Arden Hills would have to be approved by voters.  It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which these same leaders would suddenly switch gears and take away the vote from Minneapolis residents.

It’s unlikely the pro-referendum, anti-taxers in the Legislature are going to be impressed by a scheme mentioned by the governor’s stadium negotiator, Ted Mondale, in an article in the Star Tribune.

Mondale suggested that Minneapolis funds would be going to a stadium authority, not directly to the stadium. That means, he believes, the referendum amendment can be skirted or nullified.

Such Minneapolis City Council leaders as Gary Schiff and Betsy Hodges don’t accept that concept.

“There is more than $10 million of city money that is to go into the stadium,” Hodges said. “There’s no way to avoid that. It’s as clear as it can be.”

Schiff, who formulated the 1997 amendment, agrees with Hodges. At least four other council members are believed to solidly oppose the mayor’s plan.

Everywhere you look, there appear to be more problems than solutions.

Rybak, for example, is trying to convince his City Council that his proposal offers a way to renovate the Target Center and, ultimately, lower the city’s property tax rates.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk has made it clear to Rybak that if the Target Center plan is tied to the Vikings stadium, key rural legislators are likely to drop their support.

Bakk also has made it clear that this is a Republican problem. Yes, he’s said, DFLers will deliver some votes in support of “the right” stadium bill,  but Republicans will have to do “the heavy lifting.”

The boulder is huge. Sisyphus looks tired.

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