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Former Gov. Arne Carlson says Vikings stadium should be an election issue

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By Doug Belden

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Want to know what hasn’t been an election issue but should be?

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The development and financing of the new Vikings stadium, says former Gov. Arne Carlson.

“I would like to see this become a major campaign issue. It should be discussed, because it goes to the broad issue of financial management. The whole issue of due diligence, which has been absent from this project from day one. A governor who is shocked to find out that there is a 20-year-old lawsuit against Zygi Wilf and then stunned to find out that they can impose a ticket tax when it’s contained in the very proposal that these people were selling to the public. They didn’t even know their own product.”

The former Republican governor and state auditor went on the offensive Friday with a broad critique of the $1 billion project.

He said team owner Zygi Wilf is not putting in enough personal money and that taxpayers are footing the bill through a poorly understood corporate loophole closure that ought to be counted as general fund money.

An aide to Gov. Mark Dayton deferred comment to Michele Kelm-Helgen, who chairs the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority.

“With all due respect, Governor Carlson misses the point about the revenue,” Kelm-Helgen said.

The Legislature approved a corporate tax law change last year that is projected to provide $20 million per year toward stadium bond payments. “This is definitely a new dedicated revenue source,” Kelm-Helgen said.

And she said due diligence was done on the Wilfs, but there was no reason to believe the suit in New Jersey was more significant than a dispute over real estate. Later, the authority investigated to make sure the Wilfs could support their stadium commitments no matter the verdict, she said.

As for the Wilfs, “they are putting in real cash into this deal,” said Kelm-Helgen. Take the additional nearly $50 million contribution from the team announced Friday, for example. “They’re writing a check for this, this is cash that they’re putting in.”

The Vikings’ stadium contribution comes from a loan from the NFL, a bank loan backed by revenue from the sale of personal seat licenses, and $100 million from the owners’ personal resources.

Throughout the process, some — including Dayton — have said the Wilfs should put in more personal funds.

“Basically we have made Zygi Wilf a billionaire,” said Carlson, noting that Wilf bought the team for $600 million in 2005 and that it was valued this week by Forbes at $1.15 billion.

The Vikings issued a statement Friday saying: “While the stadium construction budget has increased, the public contribution to the project has not. The Vikings are now guaranteeing a private contribution of nearly $526 million toward this publicly owned and operated stadium. The team has also committed to an annual rent payment of $8.5 million, the highest annual rent payment of any NFL facility.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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