After months of negotiations between Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders on a Minnesota Vikings stadium plan, GOP legislative leaders upended the debate on Tuesday by unveiling a new proposal that relies entirely on general obligation bonds to cover the state’s portion of the project.
Majority Leader Matt Dean, who said he quietly broached the idea with the Vikings in recent days, portrayed the stadium as a standard infrastructure project that should be funded through the bonding bill. “We’re basically saying everything from the turf down is infrastructure, and that would be what would be considered bondable for this particular project,” Dean said at a press conference announcing the plan. “It’s infrastructure only.”
Dean declined to provide specific details about how the stadium would be funded or exactly how large a total bonding package is likely to be needed. He characterized the state’s portion as likely to be 20 to 25 percent. “We don’t have either of those two delineated at this point, and we will continue to work on those,” Dean said.
But a proposal circulated at the Capitol showed the state picking up $298 million of the tab – or 35 percent of the total $842 million price tag. (The total cost of this package is lower because the new plan assumes a comparatively simpler open-air stadium.) Under that plan, the team would be on the hook for $394 million, while the City of Minneapolis would be expected to kick in $150 million.
But even before Republicans announced the details of their new stadium proposal, Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislative leaders preemptively called a press conference to blast it. They complained that it was drafted in secrecy and ignored months of bipartisan negotiations. “It’s just really hard to take this seriously,” Dayton said. “It’s hard to believe that this is a serious attempt to make a resolution when we haven’t been told anything about it.”
In the wake of the announcement, some observers speculated privately that the introduction of a new proposal this late in the game may represent an attempt on the part of House Republicans to derail a stadium vote without appearing to have dropped the ball legislatively or simply refused to hold one. House Speaker Kurt Zellers’ reluctance to take up the issue has again become a prominent talking point in recent days, and Dean is thought by many to be similarly averse to holding a 2012 floor vote.
The skeptics also note that putting the stadium proposal in a general obligation bonding bill will force it to win three-fifths of the votes in both chambers in order to pass — a considerably taller order.
At the same time, however, some legislators in both chambers were quick to declare the proposal preferable to the main Vikings bill that has moved through committee in recent weeks. DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, a vociferous foe of that stadium bill, says the new plan “isn’t an offer they [Dayton and stadium backers] can only refuse. It’s a take it or leave it offer, and it’s much less objectionable than the other bill.” Winkler even ventured that he might support it, depending on the details of the other bonding proposals in the package.
Lanning: ‘I was blindsided too’
The proposal even took the chief GOP authors of Vikings legislation – Sen. Julie Rosen, of Rosemont, and Rep. Morrie Lanning, of Moorhead — by surprise. “I only heard of this idea myself this morning,” Lanning said on Tuesday afternoon. “So I was surprised too. I was blindsided, too.”
But Lanning suggested that Dayton and his DFL allies should keep an open mind about the stadium bonding proposal. “Every day we have a new idea that somebody brings forward,” Lanning said. “Whether this idea has any merit going forward, I don’t know.… Before we just sort of dismiss it as a stupid idea, let’s examine it more carefully and let’s learn more about it.”
The proposal initially received a lukewarm response from the Vikings. Lester Bagley, the team’s chief lobbyist, said that there was no coordinated effort to keep Dayton in the dark about the stadium plan. But he also indicated that it doesn’t have the support of the Vikings. “The time has passed,” Bagley said of the possibility of introducing new legislation.
Perhaps even more problematic, the Vikings may no longer have a willing local partner if the bill becomes a bonding proposal. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who has marshaled majority support for the project on the city council, indicated that the new proposal was a nonstarter. “That is a dead deal because this partner is not going to be part of that,” Rybak said.
House chief sponsor Lanning has stated repeatedly that there are enough votes in the House to pass his stadium bill, though leadership has insisted otherwise. The road to passage in the Senate has seemed much murkier. Deputy Senate Majority Leader Julianne Ortman, of Chanhassen, suggested that the bonding proposal would placate members of the GOP majorities who are worried either about increased spending or expanded gambling.
Previously the proposed stadium bill relied primarily on proceeds from electronic pulltabs to pay for the state’s share. But concerns about whether projected revenues from the gambling proposal would ultimately materialize have long dogged the plan.
“It’s pretty hard to argue that the proposal that Sen. Rosen and Rep. Lanning were moving forward did not affect the general fund,” Ortman said. “There was definitely a general fund impact with that proposal. There would be with this as well, but a lot less.”
But any reliance on general fund dollars is likely to prove problematic. Legislators from both parties have stated for months that general fund dollars would be off limits for any stadium proposal. In particular, this is likely to severely complicate attracting DFL votes for the bonding proposal. Any bonding package would need to draw a 60 percent supermajority, making extensive bipartisan support essential.
“No more pretending it’s gambling rather than taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the lead minority member of the Capital Investment Committee, in summing up the latest proposal. “Anyone who has told their constituents that they’d never support general fund money for [a stadium] cannot support this. They just can’t.”
The stadium proposal was unveiled one day after legislators blew past their self-imposed deadline of April 30 for adjournment. Constitutionally lawmakers have until May 21 to complete their work, but the number of days in which they can conduct floor sessions is down to a handful.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, of Cook, suggested that the novel stadium proposal could indicate that the session is very close to being over. “This is some kind of an endgame gimmick,” Bakk said, “and I expect that they probably are going to throw this Hail Mary out there and probably plan to go home, and this will be the largest do-nothing legislative session in state history.”
But Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, of Rochester, insisted that the late-breaking stadium proposal still has time to attract support and ultimately be enacted. “This is a house of ideas,” Senjem said, of the Capitol. “Day by day ideas emerge. And today we have a new idea. … We’re looking for solutions. We want to see if we can make this work.”