ST. PAUL, Minn. — The bill to help finance a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings stalled at least temporarily Wednesday at the Capitol, a significant setback that prompted Gov. Mark Dayton to put new pressure on GOP legislative leaders to help keep the effort alive.
The chairman of the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee tabled the stadium bill just minutes before an expected vote was to be held. Its chief Senate sponsor, Sen. Julie Rosen, said concerns from some of her colleagues about a proposed gambling expansion included in the legislation had put its passage in question.
The timing of the delay hurts the bill's prospects because Friday is an important legislative deadline. If it doesn't pass at least one statehouse committee by then, lawmakers will have to waive the deadline — something GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers would not commit to doing.
Dayton said "underhanded tactics" were behind the delay but would not call out culprits by name. At a news conference with the bill's two Republican sponsors — Rosen and Rep. Morrie Lanning — the Democratic governor made it clear he felt the bill was struggling in part because Republican legislative leaders have failed to make it a priority.
"If you want to oppose it, that's fine. But come out publicly and oppose it," Dayton said. Rosen and Lanning said if the bill is to have a chance this session, they need a commitment from their own caucus leaders that the legislative deadline would be waived.
"We're at the point now where they're really going to need to be engaged in this," said Lanning, of Moorhead. The current proposal calls for building a $975 million stadium at the current Metrodome site, with the state, the city of Minneapolis and the Vikings backed by private sources all pitching in.
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he "would not hold the bill up from the standpoint of deadline." But Zellers was unwilling to make the same vow, calling it premature. The speaker has for months been reluctant to take a stand of any kind on the stadium bill, saying he personally opposes public financing of pro sports stadiums but that he would give supporters a chance to make their case.
At the Senate hearing, a handful of Republican senators raised concerns about the source of the state's proposed $400 million share. The bill authorizes Minnesota charities that currently operate paper pull-tab and bingo games in bars and clubs around the state to upgrade to electronic versions of those games; the expectation is that would increase frequency of play, and the additional tax revenue raised would cover the state's share.
Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, said she worried the state's projections of how much money could be raised would fall short and that taxpayers would be left on the hook. Rosen replied that the bill's authors were still discussing a backup revenue source that would "blink on" if that happened — probably some type of game-related fee like a tax sports memorabilia or a Vikings-themed scratch-off game.
Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park, suggested that any increase in the availability of gambling would come at the expense of other businesses vying for Minnesotans' entertainment dollar — restaurants, movie theaters and the like. He also suggested that gambling tended to attract money from the people who can least afford to spend it.
"I have a hard time with a piece of legislation like this," Kruse said. "I feel this gambling revenue is a tax, and it's probably one of the most regressive taxes we could offer."
The committee chairman, Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, said he was willing to bring the bill up for a vote Friday, if Rosen asks him to. He said he wasn't sure how he'd vote but said he's generally opposed to expansion of gambling.
The Vikings have been seeking state help to build a new stadium for the last decade. Team Vice President Lester Bagley noted Wednesday that the Vikings are at the bottom of the NFL in terms of stadium-related profits. He said after the committee action that team officials would continue to push the bill and still hope for its passage this session.
At the hearing, Rosen reiterated the most common fear expressed by backers of a new stadium: that failure to act soon would result in the Vikings' owners moving the team to another city or selling it to someone who would.
"If we delay building the stadium and lose the Vikings, we will be looking for a new team very shortly," she said.
Associated Press reporter Alexandra Tempus contributed to this report.