GOP ranks are split; DFLers are disinclined to help
The debate over how to fund a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings has always divided legislative caucuses on both sides of the aisle. Last year DFLers from Minneapolis pushed back on a proposal that suggested extending local taxes from the Convention Center to help pay for the project, even as Democrats like former Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk led the charge for the team’s new home. In GOP circles, talks over possible funding mechanisms such as memorabilia taxes and racino gambling have split conservatives and moderates in both chambers. Some legislators stand firm on their position that the state should have no involvement at all in the project.
A new proposal to fund a stadium is due to drop this week, and some old battle lines are forming anew. But there’s a new political dynamic at the Capitol this session that could tip the scale and make passage tricky, legislators say. Last fall’s election saw Republicans take control of both chambers, with their numbers bolstered by a cadre of freshman elected on a no-new-taxes wave. Some GOP freshmen are already aligning themselves against a sports memorabilia tax provision in the bill, and say the timing couldn’t be worse as Republicans work to pass a slew of omnibus bills to tackle a $5 billion budget deficit.
The proposal’s authors acknowledge a need to bring on DFL support in order to get it through the Legislature, but old allies like Bakk, who now serves as the Senate minority leader, have refused to sign on in a political climate that finds legislative Republicans targeting DFL districts for local aid and K-12 funding cuts to solve the budget deficit.
“The bill won’t get passed unless there is strong support from both caucuses,” averred House bill author Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead. “It’s the one issue that, more than any other, is going to require bipartisan support.”
Cool reception from GOP leaders, freshmen
Late last week, Lanning and Senate author Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, released a letter signaling their intent to drop a stadium proposal into the bill queue. The letter included a summary of the bill, which splits the nearly $1 billion project price tag evenly among the state, the team and a local partner. The bill does not name a host city for the new stadium, leaving that decision up to a stadium authority that would take bids from local municipalities in the Twin Cities area.
The proposal suggests a slate of taxes that could help pay for the state’s portion of the cost, including a sports memorabilia tax, a player income tax surcharge, a state tax on luxury boxes at the stadium and a sales tax on direct satellite services. It also proposes revenues from a dedicated sports-themed lottery game, and suggests that the host city chosen could raise money with a maximum 0.5 percent sales tax increase, a tax on each game ticket, and a maximum 3 percent tax on things like liquor, lodging and entertainment.
GOP leaders were immediately cool to the idea. “I don’t think it has anything to do with us,” House Speaker Kurt Zellers said of the proposal during an end-of-the-week press briefing. “I think it has more to do with the Vikings, the building, the local partner and how to pay for it. Our job is, once they present a bill with those components, then we can act on it.”
Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch emphasized a budget-first agenda for Republicans, saying “we’d be very cautious” about budget chairs working on a stadium bill at the same time as the budget. Neither leader would promise committee hearings on the bill.
In addition to facing down the reservations of the leadership, the bill’s authors could have a tough time convincing the 54 new Republicans in both chambers to vote for the proposal. Several freshman Republicans have already come out in their local papers and radio stations against the timing and some components of the proposal.
Albert Lea Republican Rep. Rich Murray recently told the Austin Daily Herald that the timing was off, adding that creating jobs and solving the deficit need to be the Legislature’s focus. “Until we get those two things done, it’s really hard to focus on a stadium,” he told the paper. “We’re trying to fix the budget right now, and different groups are having to give up a lot of stuff. It doesn’t look very good if we’re all out there saying, ‘Let’s get this Vikings stadium done.’”
Freshman Rep. King Banaian believes the state’s portion of the stadium cost is too high. The St. Cloud economics professor said on a local radio station that the team should have to cover at least half of the cost, adding the state wouldn’t get much of a return on its investment. Freshman GOP Rep. Andrea Kieffer of Woodbury said many in her caucus don’t want to see “taxpayers fund the stadium, period.” She said there is more support among members for a racino proposal to help cover the bill.
Freshman Sen. Dave Thompson, who serves as assistant majority leader in his caucus, said he’s frankly “not excited about it.” “Philosophically, it’s not where our caucus should be going,” he said. In addition to the timing problem with taking up such a bill in the midst of budget deliberations, Thompson said the proposed levy on sports memorabilia is a tax increase, which he cannot support. “When government implements a fee,” he said, “it should be to cover a cost of government. When we levy to get money to fund something else, that is a tax. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
Thompson, who was the lone freshman in his chamber to be elected to an assistant majority leader position, said he cannot speak for every new member, but said he believes many freshmen feel the same way about the stadium proposal. “[The bill] has a difficult road ahead,” he said.
“If you, as a legislator, say I’m not going to raise any new taxes, then you’re going to have to work out the whole memorabilia tax thing in your head,” RacinoNOW lobbyist and former Senate GOP leader Dick Day said. “They’re sitting in their caucus, and you know people are talking about that and asking those questions.”
DFLers shy away from stadium
Votes lost from wary Republicans will need to be made up with DFL support, which could prove difficult after minority caucus leaders showed little support for the bill in press briefings last week. Bakk said there is not enough time to get the bill through this session. Despite leading the efforts for the stadium as a bill author in the past, the Cook Democrat says he will not support the proposal until someone like Koch signs on as a co-author.
There are also political reasons for holding back on the proposal: Bakk is miffed over a move by the GOP leadership to raid the Douglas J. Johnson fund to the tune of $40 million to $60 million to help solve the budget deficit. The fund, which is fueled by taconite taxes, is set up to promote economic development in the Iron Range.
Rosen says she is disappointed the bill has become a “political football for the senator.” “I was hoping that this wouldn’t turn into a political game,” she said. Rosen acknowledges the need to bring Democrats on board to pass the bill, and has earned the signature of Linda Scheid of Brooklyn Park, the only Senate DFLer so far to sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill. Brooklyn Park is in the running as a host city for the new stadium.
Garnering DFL votes in the House could prove tricky, too. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen has signaled that his caucus is unlikely to support a bill that raises taxes to build a stadium while Republicans refuse to raise taxes elsewhere to ease the depth of budget cuts. “If we’re not willing to raise taxes for our schools and for police and firefighters,” he said, “it’s very hard to see voting to raise taxes to build a Vikings stadium.”