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Legislators’ out-of-blue stadium proposal badly fumbles trust issue

In just a few hours Tuesday, months of delicate work of building trust may have come unraveled, leaving the stadium’s prospects once more in doubt.

Governor Mark Dayton, shown here speaking with reporters after negotiations with the GOP Monday, was back in front of the press blasting Republicans for working on an alternate deal behind his back on a Vikings stadium plan.

Since the beginning of the long process by Gov. Mark Dayton and a handful of legislators to get a Vikings stadium bill to the floors of the House and Senate, the word “trust” has been a constant.

Given the controversial nature of the issue, this deal required trust among key pols of both parties, labor and business, the state and the city of Minneapolis, the Vikings and the public partners.

In a matter of just a few hours on the day after this messy session was supposed to be over, it appears that all of that delicate work of building trust may have come unraveled with the reports that a group of Republican lawmakers had “secret” meetings with the Vikings to discuss the possibility of building a roof-ready stadium using bonding money, instead of charitable gambling revenue, as the state’s portion of the deal.

This last-minute surprise seems to have been orchestrated by House Majority Leader Matt Dean, who appears to have received a helping hand from the Senate’s deputy majority leader, Julianne Ortman.

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The words of House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem suggested they support the plan. But there was little passion in their words – and the two top leaders let Dean and Ortman do most of the talking at a news briefing this afternoon.

How is it possible that a fundamental change in a stadium proposal that has sludged through seven legislative committees would come up the day after GOP leaders had wanted to adjourn?

GOP leaders vague on what’s happened

Republican leaders were vague.

“We’re just trying to find solutions,” said Dean.

Others in the Republican quartet echoed that refrain. They said that this overnight plan seems to have “strong support” in the GOP caucuses. Ortman and Dean did say they were scrambling to come up with answers to questions and an actual bill.

All of this makes it sound as if the stadium is dead for this session.

It seems unlikely the GOP can come up with a new bill in a matter of hours to replace a bill that was worked on for eight months by members of both parties.

But they denied they were trying to kill a stadium.

“I would never question the motives [behind a bill],” Zellers said. “It’s another solution to the problem, another option.”

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Without a “new solution,” Zellers implied he didn’t think there were enough House votes to pass a stadium bill. He said he believes the bill will appeal to DFLers because it’s tied to a higher bonding level.

The first DFL reaction to reports of the secret deals and the new proposal were quick and hostile.

Dayton, Rybak criticize new plan

Gov. Mark Dayton called reporters to his office and called the meetings “cynical, underhanded politics.” The governor said Republicans were more interested in “who gets the win, who gets the loss” than in a constructive plan.

Dayton also released a statement urging Minnesotans to get involved.

“I’m saying please call your legislators and say vote,” Dayton said. “Vote on the proposal that’s been worked on for the last eight months. That’s before the House and Senate. That’s been vetted by seven legislative committees. … Call your legislators and say quit fooling around, this is not about politics for November and it’s not about your jobs for Novembers. It’s about our jobs, our future, ouR team. Get it done. Bring it up — up or down vote.”

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said that if the stadium is to be built without a roof for the short term, the city can no longer be a partner.

The Vikings’ Lester Bagley, lead negotiator for the team, quickly tried to minimize damage by saying, “This is not our proposal.”

But surely, there’s little in this shell of a deal from the Vikings’ perspective. The GOP is pledging bonding revenue only for infrastructure. It’s unclear at what level the proposal would “cap” the state’s share. Early in the day, there were reports that the state portion would fall between $398 million and $298 million.

It should be recalled, however, that initially the Vikings said they didn’t care whether a new stadium had a roof.

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Without a roof, however, the stadium no longer fits the “People’s Stadium” parameters the governor and the working group had set.

Remember, a main selling point is that an enclosed stadium, run by a quasi-public authority, would be available for amateur sports organizations throughout the year. It would also be available for major events, such as Super Bowls, large conventions and trade shows.

Additionally, the governor had vowed that no money from the general fund would be used for the building. The proposal that struggled through all those legislative committees is financed by an expansion of charitable gambling. The new proposal pays for the bonds directly from the general fund.

Again, though, the huge issue is trust. Who can believe whom? Is this deal serious, or just another in a long line of plot twists.

Stadium sponsors apparently out of loop, too

Apparently, the key GOP leaders on the stadium bill, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, and Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, were not informed of the plan until this morning. If that’s true, they must be furious, though veteran politicians typically are good at shielding their emotions.

“It’s a thought,” Rosen told the Star Tribune about the new proposal. “But it hasn’t been properly vetted through proper channels.”

Lanning and Rosen were noticeably absent from the media event held by the Republican leaders.

Go back to trust. Again, from the beginning of this process, a number of legislators, including some on the key working group that puttogether the deal that cleared committees and was expected to get to the floors, said they have had a difficult time trusting the Vikings.

The contrast often was made between Bagley and the Twins’ Jerry Bell, the lead negotiator for the baseball team in the years-long process that finally led to the construction of Target Field.

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Legislators believed Bell.

“We knew he spoke for the Pohlads,” said one senator who has worked on both projects but would only talk privately. “We don’t know that about Bagley.”

Additionally, legislators frequently said they don’t know Zygi and Mark Wilf, who own the Vikings but who don’t have Minnesota ties.

It’s also been difficult for bipartisan architects of the stadium deal to trust  Zellers. He has tap-danced around his position on the stadium for months, a dance that continued today.

That coyness has had legislators, of both parties, shaking their heads.

“If a House speaker wants something, he works for it,’ said one lobbyist.

The role of Dean has been just as mysterious during the months of negotiations. He’s ducked questions on the subject.

Do GOP House leaders agree?

There have been questions as to whether the two GOP House leaders even agree among themselves as to which direction the stadium should go.

Senjem, who attempts to lead a fractured Senate caucus and who is a straightforward supporter of the stadium plan that has made it through committees, seemed the most uncomfortable today.  He also seemed to minimize the significance of this turn of events.

“Very embryonic,” he said of the new plan.

He talked of how the Legislature is “a house of ideas.” New ideas, he said, constantly are coming forward.

But typically they don’t come forward, out of the mist, as this idea did.

Hennepin County Commissioner  Mike Opat, the key pol in creating the Twins’ stadium deal, was only partially mystified by this last-minute twist.

“Everything surprises you, nothing surprises you,” said Opat, who earlier in the session thought there was little chance a stadium bill would be passed this session.

But as he looked at the deal, he saw little that makes sense.

“This is supposed to be a people’s stadium,’’ he said. “What do the people get out of this?’’

The fate of the stadium, he said, is in the hands of six people – Dayton, Zellers, Dean, Senjem, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen.

And right now, they have a huge trust issue.