ST. PAUL, Minn. – The drive by the Minnesota Vikings to line up state money toward building a new football stadium regained momentum Thursday, just several hours after it seemed to fall apart for the year.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who a day earlier had proclaimed the effort in "limbo," met with state lawmakers who support the stadium subsidy. The team's lead allies in the House and Senate said they would introduce a detailed stadium proposal soon — with tax proceeds from some type of gambling expansion as the likeliest chief funding source — then air it in public hearings, with a goal of passing a plan before the regular legislative session starts in late January.
"I would hope this would all be wrapped up and put away and done, and in a bipartisan spirit, before session starts," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the lead Senate supporter. Dayton said he'd let lawmakers take the lead on the issue for now; despite Rosen's optimism, House Speaker Kurt Zellers reaffirmed in an interview on WCCO-AM that he was not in favor of a stadium session.
Rosen and her House colleague, Rep. Morrie Lanning, said the main sticking point to introducing a stadium bill is nailing down funding sources. Dayton and lawmakers have agreed to not use any state general fund dollars, and the prospect of participation from a local government host site went out the window earlier in the week because too few lawmakers opposed exempting such participation from a voter referendum.
That leaves the Vikings' preferred approach, a $1.1 billion stadium in a suburban area north of the Twin Cities, lacking a $350 million chunk that the prospective Ramsey County hosts promised to raise via a half-cent sales tax hike. Three other sites in downtown Minneapolis are also under consideration. The Vikings have committed to spending $407 million and possibly more on the site in Arden Hills, which team owners prefer over the Minneapolis options.
The Vikings have sought a replacement for the Metrodome for most of the last decade, saying the downtown Minneapolis venue is no longer sufficiently profitable. Team officials have refrained from directly threatening to leave Minnesota if they don't get a new stadium, but Dayton and other supporters have said they take such a scenario seriously.
Lanning said several options under discussion to expand the state's menu of gambling offerings appeared to be the likeliest way for the state to raise stadium funds.
"It seems to me that the only way we're going to be able to get the support we need for a facility like this, and get the revenue we need, is through gaming being some part of it," said Lanning, a Republican from the northwestern Minnesota city of Moorhead. "We're in the process of evaluating these proposals, but I frankly don't think we can put a deal together unless there's gaming revenue that's a part of it."
Supporters of expanded gambling have tried and failed to gather legislative approval for at least as long as the Vikings have chased funds for a new stadium. More gambling has been a tough sell at the Capitol, with opposition from some who call it socially destructive and from Minnesota Indian tribes who see unwanted competition for their casinos.
"For the state to pay for a new Vikings stadium with predatory gambling dollars means the state will be preying on the citizens it's supposed to be protecting," said Tom Prichard, executive director of the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative advocacy group.
But Dayton, too, has said recently that gambling tax revenue looks like the best source, specifically singling out electronic pull-tabs — an updated version of an old game of chance played in the state's bars and restaurants. The Minnesota charities that profit from pull-tabs, along with the eating and drinking establishments that host them, have sought for several years the authorization to upgrade to the more slot machine-like electronic tabs.
"It seems to me reasonable people can come up with something that allows all of us to come away with a win. I think it's doable," King Wilson, executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, said of tying new gambling tax proceeds to stadium construction.
Allied Charities represents about 3,200 licensed charitable gambling sites whose proceeds traditionally help fund everything from veterans organizations to youth sports leagues. The group has offered paper pull-tab games since the mid-1980s, but it's long wanted to offer an electronic version to attract new and younger customers and help a bar and restaurant industry battered by the recession.
Also still under discussion is a longstanding proposal to allow two Twin Cities horse-racing tracks to offer video slot machines, and a more recent bid by a Minneapolis developer to build a casino downtown. But either proposal would face much stronger opposition from the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which represents 11 casino-owning state tribes.
It's a different story with the electronic pull-tab proposal. The association's director, John McCarthy, said the group does not support it, but wouldn't actively oppose it.
"We don't see anything new there other than a different way to present the pull-tabs than they're already selling," he said.
Dayton said Thursday that a senior member of his staff had been in touch recently with lobbyists for two tribes that operate lucrative casinos in the state.