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Minneapolis mayor touts stadium council majority

The Vikings stadium bill, stalled for nearly two weeks at the Capitol, got a new push Monday when Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he'd lined up a city council majority in support of the $975 million plan to rebuild on the site of the Metrodome.

Opposition on the Minneapolis City Council had been a major stumbling block for stadium supporters, and Rybak's announcement threw the issue back into the lap of state legislators who have been reluctant to embrace it. A Senate committee tabled the bill earlier this month when it appeared on the verge of getting voted down, but a key House committee chairman said Monday that he hoped to give the bill its first House hearing before the week is out.

"I think it helps to have the city of Minneapolis on board," said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, chairman of the House Commerce Committee. Time is growing short for stadium supporters in their bid to secure the Vikings in Minnesota for another 30 years, with the legislative session likely to be over in a month's time or less.

For weeks, Rybak and Council President Barbara Johnson had worked to nail down a council majority and at times appeared to be falling short of the needed seven votes on the 13-member council. But at a Capitol news conference with Gov. Mark Dayton, they released signed letters from seven council members who say they'd vote in favor of the proposal and forgo a citywide referendum on the issue.

"Is it time to build it? I think it is," Rybak said.

The bill under consideration proposes a $975 million stadium in downtown Minneapolis, and taps an existing city sales tax to the tune of $150 million to cover a local cost share. Stadium critics point to a provision in the city's charter that requires a citywide vote before more than $10 million in city money can be spent for a professional sports stadium, but the bill under discussion was designed to bypass that requirement by making the state of Minnesota collect the sales tax instead of the city.

Rybak said the city attorney believes a citywide vote is not legally required, and that his council majority believes likewise. But Gary Schiff, a council member opposed to the proposal, said critics would likely sue to force a referendum if it comes to that.

"Given the very strong feelings by Minneapolis residents on this issue, I doubt they'll sit quietly and allow the city charter to be circumvented," Schiff said. He also questioned if Rybak's majority would hold: "Some people apparently changed their minds, but people who change their minds have a tendency to change them back."

Stadium supporters have made strong allies of leaders in Minneapolis business and labor circles, and council members have been lobbied in recent weeks by prominent downtown business owners and executives as well as union officials. The stadium bill allows Minneapolis latitude to use future sales tax revenues to relieve property taxpayers, and council members said they were swayed by that along with the promise of 7,500 construction jobs from building a new stadium.

"Make no mistake about it, this is a stimulus project for the city of Minneapolis," Council Members Don Samuels said.

Even with concerns about Minneapolis support at least temporarily sidelined, stadium supporters still have a tough climb at the Capitol. Chiefly, the Legislature must still work out wrinkles in a plan to cover the state's $398 million share of the stadium costs with tax revenue from a gambling expansion.

The plan calls for authorizing new, electronic versions of several paper-based games of chance now sold by charities at Minnesota bars. But the proposal has come under fire by leaders of groups that represent those very charities, for not sharing a bigger portion of projected new profits.

Dayton told the news conference Monday that members of his administration continue to work with the charities to address those concerns, both in giving them a bigger share of future profits and directing some of the new revenue to reform the taxes they pay on the games.

Some state lawmakers have also worried that gambling revenue is an unpredictable means of paying for a major construction project and could leave state taxpayers on the hook if it doesn't raise as much as projected. Rep. Hoppe said he has those concerns, but believes stadium bill sponsors are working on a backup funding source that would "blink on" only if gambling money falls short — most likely some type of user fee linked directly to pro football games.

"I have always liked suite taxes and ticket taxes," Hoppe said. "People look at their tickets and know right what the money's for, and I think people are generally supportive of that."