ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Vikings' chances for getting a decision this year from state lawmakers on financing for a new football stadium plummeted Wednesday, pushing resolution of the issue past the date when the team's current lease binding it to Minnesota runs out.
Gov. Mark Dayton emerged from a late afternoon meeting with legislative leaders to declare the stadium push in "limbo," complaining that leading lawmakers wouldn't get on board with his plan to call a special legislative session in late November to vote on financing for a stadium to replace the Metrodome.
"My timetable has been rejected by the Legislature," said Dayton, a Democrat. "Now the question is, what's their timetable?"
Earlier in the day, as word spread that House Speaker Kurt Zellers opposed a special session, a Minnesota Vikings executive warned that delaying the issue until next year's regular session would increase the project's already hefty cost. Vice President Lester Bagley stopped short of saying the team would pull up stakes, but noted that after this season the Vikings "will be the only team without a lease."
"The strategy of avoiding a stadium issue has not worked," Bagley said. "It only gets more costly and more difficult to resolve, especially if they allow the lease to expire with no action."
Following the afternoon blowup, the Vikings released a statement calling the turn of events "very disappointing."
Zellers, in an email sent Tuesday night to his 71 House GOP colleagues, said the issue should wait until lawmakers convene the 2012 session in January. The Vikings have four remaining home games in their Metrodome lease, and whispers of relocation have run throughout the stadium discussion. There has been little outward recruiting of the Vikings by Los Angeles or other cities seeking an NFL presence, though Dayton has said he takes the prospect seriously that failure to act could mean losing the team.
Zellers and Senate Republican Leader Amy Koch would reveal few details of their meeting with Dayton, and Zellers declined to explicitly repeat the contents of his email, calling it a private communication to colleagues. But both said the Legislature should hold public hearings on various questions of the stadium debate, including where to locate it among several prospective sites and the best source of public money to pay for it, before lawmakers proceed with a special session.
Dayton doesn't need the Legislature's consent to call a special session, but lawmakers determine how long it lasts once they're back in St. Paul. Governors typically avoid calling a session without mutual agreement on an agenda.
Dayton had planned to release his own stadium proposal next week, possibly as early as Monday. But after his meeting with lawmakers, he said he'd abandon that plan, and that he also planned to cancel several stadium-related meetings in the coming days including a planned Friday meeting with team owner Zygi Wilf.
Zellers and Koch said it was difficult to get support for a special session so quickly given the many uncertainties surrounding the proposal. That was echoed by Republican Sen. David Hann, an opponent of a public stadium subsidy, who said it would be wrong to rush a plan through in a special session.
"What other billion-dollar things do we do in the Legislature in three weeks without ever having seen them before? I can't think of any," Hann said. "I would think that the public would not want the Legislature to act that way."
One possible option fell away a day earlier when Dayton and lawmakers effectively ruled out new local sales taxes to pay for a share of the expected stadium cost. They said a sales tax lacks the votes to pass the Legislature unless a public referendum is required; the earliest a referendum could be held is November 2012 and the Vikings oppose one.
Discussions in recent days have focused on expanded gambling. There are several possibilities: authorizing a new casino in downtown Minneapolis; adding video slot machines at two horse-racing tracks near the Twin Cities; allowing bars and restaurants to shift from offering paper pull-tab gambling cards to electronic ones; and selling themed scratch-off lottery tickets.
The pull-tab plan, which also envisions a bingo component, appears to have the most traction. Legislative researchers estimate it would raise up to $42 million a year.
"I think the electronic pull-tabs probably has the most promise at this point in terms of drawing enough support in the Legislature," Dayton said. "My sense is that's probably the most immediately available and plausible source right now."
Another possible approach would be to divert money from the state's "Legacy" sales tax, which was approved by voters in 2008 to dedicate money to arts and cultural programs, outdoor preservation and clean water initiatives. Dayton said that would not be his preferred approach but that he is not ready to rule it out either.
But those questions are likely to recede for the time being, given the apparent disappearance of momentum to settle the issue this year. Dayton had long been a proponent of settling the issue in 2011, given that lawmakers who return for the regular session at the end of January are likely to be facing another state budget shortfall, a politically messy redistricting battle as well as the prospect of all 201 legislators up for reelection in November.
Asked what happens next, Dayton put the onus on legislators: "The ball is in their court," he said.