By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
Just days before they’re set to vote on one of the most highly publicized and controversial pieces of legislation of their political careers, a majority of south-central Minnesota lawmakers are ready to vote “Yes” on funding for a new $975 million stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
Of the dozen senators and representatives in The Free Press coverage area, 10 agreed to be interviewed about their attitude toward the contentious stadium funding bill — which is set for a vote in the House on Monday. One senator — Republican Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls — wouldn’t say which way he’s leaning, because he expects the House to change the bill substantially before it reaches the Senate.
Of the remaining nine, two are solidly opposed and seven are planning to vote for the bill or are inclined to support it.
If the rest of Minnesota’s 201 lawmakers follow this region’s lead, it will bring a new stadium to Minneapolis, a lease keeping the team in the state for 30 years and an end to a debate that’s stretched over more than a decade of legislative sessions.
If a majority in either body rejects the stadium, it will likely mean the end of the team’s 50-year presence in Minnesota, according to bill supporters and National Football League officials.
Both supporters and opponents are reluctant to predict the outcome of what is expected to be a razor-thin margin on the vote tally boards in the House and Senate.
“My expectation is that it will be interesting,” said Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato. “Maybe that’s an understatement.”
A long, wearing debate
Brynaert is one of the five area lawmakers who doesn’t hesitate when pledging to support the bill negotiated by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont; Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead; Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton; Minneapolis officials and the Vikings.
“It’s a very complex issue and we’ve been at it a long time,” Brynaert said. “I think we need a solution.”
The Rosen-Lanning bill — with the state paying $398 million, the city of Minneapolis $150 million and the team $427 million — is far from perfect, not her first choice, but good enough to get her vote, Brynaert said.
“I’m going to vote for the bill on Monday.”
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, is similarly unwavering.
“I’m a ‘yes’ vote, definitely,” he said.
Cornish said his constituents have been clear in their support for the stadium plan, in no small part because they’re sick of hearing about it.
“They don’t want to see it come up again next year,” he said. “And we’re tired of it, too.”
Democratic Rep. Kory Kath of Owatonna and Republican Sen. Mike Parry of Waseca didn’t respond to calls from The Free Press asking for their position on the stadium bill.
Other definite “yes” votes will come from Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, and from two sponsors of the bill — Rosen and Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, who is co-sponsor of the legislation in the House.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, is likely to support the bill but isn’t committing to that until getting a stronger promise from Vikings’ officials that their summer training camp will continue in Mankato.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-St. James, has misgivings about the expanded gambling that’s being counted on to cover the state’s share of the stadium costs but is inclined to vote in favor of the bill.
“I think the mood has changed in the public,” Torkelson said. “I’d agree there’s this ‘Let’s get it over with’ attitude. And I kind of agree with that.”
Torkelson isn’t alone in his nervousness about the funding source — electronic pull-tab machines in bars, expanded bingo hall opportunities and new sports tip-boards. The two opponents of the bill cite the funding method as the primary reason they’ll vote against it.
“The whole thing is just a sham is what it is,” said Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe.
Iowa is the only state that’s tried electronic pull-tabs, and revenue there came up far short of projections, Gruenhagen said. If Minnesota’s projections are similarly flawed, tax dollars will end up covering the gap.
“The revenue side is fatally flawed,” Gruenhagen said. “I’m not going to have the taxpayers of the state pick up the tab for the next 30 years when this doesn’t work out.”
Even if the projections are correct, however, Republican Sen. Al DeKruif of Elysian doesn’t like the implications of the electronic pull-tab machines more than doubling the amount of gambling being done in small-town bars.
“I don’t want that to happen (in Elysian),” DeKruif said. “That’s not good for our little town. ... That’s money that’s not going to be going toward groceries, not going toward a new car, not going toward other things.”
The economic case
Morrow said Minnesota has been more conservative in its projections on revenue from expanded gambling and asks opponents to look at the details of the report compiled by the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
But Morrow said opponents of the bill are missing the other side of the revenue equation. The Vikings players, Vikings staff and players from visiting teams will pay an estimated $800 million in state income taxes over the next 30 years — an amount that far surpasses the state’s stadium contribution, he said.
The Vikings will locate to another state if their only alternative is staying in the Metrodome, which doesn’t provide the same income available to competing NFL teams in more modern stadiums, according to Morrow.
If the Vikings leave, not all of the $800 million in tax revenue will disappear. Minnesotans who buy football tickets now will spend that money elsewhere in the state economy if the Vikings are playing elsewhere, Morrow conceded.
Most of the money, though, will disappear from state coffers because 70 percent of Vikings’ revenue comes from outside of the Minnesota — primarily through multi-billion-dollar national TV contracts shared by the 32 teams in the league, he said. So 70 percent of the $800 million in income taxes — $560 million — would no longer be available to the state.
If NFL salaries rise at levels seen in recent decades, the loss would be $600 million or more, he said.
“The state of Minnesota will have a hole in its budget of $600 million over 30 years if the Vikings leave,” Morrow said. “... The state comes out ahead by keeping the Vikings here.”
Quality of life
Brynaert has seen economic evidence supporting Morrow’s position and economic evidence suggesting the impact of the Vikings departure would be less. Her decision to support the bill — despite not being enthusiastic about the funding source or about the NFL’s tactic of squeezing money out of states and cities to subsidize stadiums — comes down to the importance of the team to the state and its residents.
“The Vikings are part of our culture,” she said.
When people decide whether to live and do business in Minnesota, one thing they look at is what Brynaert calls the state’s “quality-of-life portfolio.” That includes everything from parks to schools to the Guthrie Theater to orchestras to professional sports teams.
The team also ties Minnesotans together, celebrating the good times and — maybe more often — suffering together through the heartbreaks. Brynaert isn’t a fan of professional sports herself, but the team’s place in the lives of her friends and family hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I appreciate all that — the team spirit or Zeitgeist or whatever you want to call it,” she said. “It’s real.”
A nail-biter of a finish
Cornish is one of the few lawmakers willing to predict the result of Monday’s House vote. He believes it will pass — although possibly with the vote left open for several minutes as fence-sitters wait each other out.
“I think it will,” he said. “The board might stay open for a while, but I think it’s important that they pass it.”
The consensus at the Capitol is that the Senate will prove an even higher hurdle, with a vote as soon as Tuesday if the House approves it.
With the Vikings potentially desperate for every Senate vote, Sheran figures she should be able to get a commitment from the Vikings to continue their decades-long tradition of holding their pre-season training camp at Minnesota State University.
She’s inclined to support the Rosen bill but isn’t ruling out voting for a different funding source than the expanded gambling proposal. A conversation between Sheran and Lester Bagley, the Vikings vice president of public affairs/stadium development, resulted in hints that the team is happy in Mankato but no firm commitment that training camp will continue here.
“So I’m still letting my vote float out there a little bit to see if I can negotiate something for our district,” Sheran said.
Gunther wanted something out of the Vikings stadium bill as well — approval of casinos at the state’s horse-racing tracks as the funding source. But he’s planning to support the Rosen-Lanning plan and bide his time on the so-called racinos.
“I’m going to vote for it,” Gunther said. “I started out voting for it when it had racino in the bill, which by the way, would have paid Minnesota’s share and Minneapolis’ share and helped a huge (horse-breeding) industry in our state.”
If skeptics of the pull-tab revenue prove correct, Gunther figures racinos approved in a future legislative session would be a natural way to fix the shortfall.
“I think racino has the potential to be the problem-solver,” he said.
And if the pull-tab revenue projections are true, it will mean more money for local charities and bars that get a cut of pull-tab sales, he said.
Besides, Gunther said, he’s received nearly 1,500 emails, letters and calls on the stadium issue since the beginning of the session, and more than 90 percent were pro-stadium. Passing the bill will make those folks happy. It might have the same effect on lawmakers.
“I want to see this thing behind us,” Gunther said. “Not ahead of us anymore.”
e-mail Gov. Mark Dayton
e-mail Sen.Kathy Sheran, D, Mankato
e-mail Rep. Terry Morrow, D, St. Peter
e-mail Sen. Mike Parry, R, Waseca
e-mail Sen. Al DeKruif, R, Madison Lake
e-mail Rep. Paul Torkelson, R, St. James.
e-mail Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R, Glencoe
e-mail Sen. Julie Rosen, R, Fairmont
e-mail Rep. Tony Cornish, R, Good Thunder
e-mail Rep.Kathy Brynaert, D, Mankato
e-mail Rep. Bob Gunther, R, Fairmont
e-mail Sen. Gary Dahms, R, Redwood Falls