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Outstate lawmakers take lead on Vikings stadium

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By Andrew Tellijohn

Forum State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Vikings football team has begun a two-minute drill to win legislative support for a new stadium just as the Twins baseball team opened its new ballpark to great acclaim.

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Joining the team in fighting long odds as the 2010 legislative session enters its final month are several lawmakers from outside the Twin Cities as leaders of an informal group of legislators seeking a stadium solution.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, emphasized that the group also involves legislators from the Twin Cities, from the House and the Senate and from both political parties. But David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said the situation is similar to when lawmakers outside the Twin Cities played a key role in gaining financing for the Twins ballpark.

It might be easier for them, Olson said, because their constituents are potentially less affected by financing options.

"Their folks, unless they come to the metro and unless they stay at a hotel and unless they buy a refreshment they probably wouldn't pay for it," Olson said. Those lawmakers "also realize the Vikings are an asset. I give them credit. They are trying to find a way to keep them here."

Furthermore, they might be seen as more credible because "they don't have a dog in the hunt," said Weaver, pointing specifically to the role former Rep. Brad Finstad, R-Comfrey, played in landing the Twins' deal.

Solberg said there is no significance to the visibility of several non-Twin Cities lawmakers.

Bakk said the perception that he and others outside the state's largest metropolitan area might be "trying to thrust a tax on someone else's district" could make taking the lead on this issue more difficult.

Vikings discussion comes two seasons before the team's Metrodome lease expires. The team has said it will not renew the lease, leading to speculation that the team could leave Minnesota.

Team Vice President Lester Bagley told KFAN-AM listeners that contractors could break ground in August if a bill passes in the Legislature's last month. He also said a stadium would result in 13,000 jobs.

"If we don't act now, rates are going up," Bagley said, adding that team owners have met with legislators and business leaders and are excited because "now we've got some energy."

Democratic legislative leaders, who control the Legislature, say they have felt none of that energy. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said that when Bakk mentioned work on the stadium most of his colleagues were surprised that anyone felt a stadium plan has a chance to pass this year.

Pogemiller and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said that no legislators have discussed the issue with them. And this late in the annual session, they control what bills are debated.

Several funding sources are being discussed for a stadium, which could cost between $700 million and $1 billion.

One idea being floated, but with little support in the past, would use revenue from a casino at Canterbury Park. Another would utilize a Twin Cities-area tax on hotels, sports memorabilia and rental cars. A third would have the Vikings pay off loans for the first 10 years, with Minneapolis then taking on the burden once Minneapolis Convention Center debt is retired.

All of those ideas have strong opponents.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty repeatedly has said he will not support any funding that raises state taxes.

Challenges abound. Bakk said it will be important to gain business community support. Olson said the chamber would consider supporting a bill if it meets several criteria, such as not creating new taxes or doing anything that would hamper economic recovery.

Also important, Bakk added, is having widespread support from lawmakers before debate begins. "There is not enough time here between now and May 17 for people to start far apart," he said.

Beyond that, legislative leaders and Pawlenty insist that balancing the budget and passing education reforms take priority over a stadium.

Even those pushing for a bill say state taxes will not increase, the state general fund will not be raided and the Vikings must make a significant financial contribution and reach agreement with a local government partner before a deal will happen.

Pawlenty's assessment of stadium chances are simple: "unlikely, but possible."

Despite long odds, supporters say the Vikings are a statewide asset worthy of saving, if they can.

"There are ways this can be done," said Lanning, who expressed confidence that at least one Vikings bill would be authored before session ends. "They are not going to be acted upon until and unless the conditions are met. ... Whether or not a deal will be struck in the end remains to be seen."

Bakk said when he was running for governor, a quest which has ended, nearly every stop included questions about the team's status.

Solberg said construction costs are down and a stadium project would create jobs.

"There are lots of reasons to at least consider it," he said.

Not the least reason, Lanning said, is an even more daunting budget deficit forecast for the next state budget.

"This might be the state's last chance," he said.

Don Davis of the state Capitol bureau contributed to this report. Tellijohn and Davis report for Forum Communications Co.

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