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Rural lawmakers question chances for new Vikings stadium this year

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota political leaders have a month to agree on a Vikings football stadium deal before chances of success diminish.

Regardless of the timing, rural lawmakers who in the past have cast key votes in favor of stadiums are pessimistic of its chances.

Even Rep. Tom Anzelc, an "unabashed, unqualified supporter," said a new football facility is a long shot.

When the northern Minnesota Democrat left St. Paul after a special July legislative session that produced a controversial state budget to end a government shutdown, there was little House support for another special session to deal with the stadium issue. Since then, he said, "I'm not seeing any movement toward the positive side."

The House sponsor of a stadium bill said that if the stadium debate does not happen until next year, the job will be much harder.

"I didn't feel this way a couple months ago but, frankly, our best hope is a special session," Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said.

The Associated Press reported that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday he will conduct meetings on successive days with leading legislators, National Football League officials and team owner Zygi Wilf. The meetings are planned for Monday through Wednesday.

"Now is the time. Turn your cards face up on the table. Tell us what it's going to cost, tell us what you're going to do," Dayton said, according to the AP report.

Rural lawmakers contacted Thursday, after two major stadium developments this week, generally were pessimistic about stadium chances. Some said a special session is not appropriate for a stadium issue.

In the past, rural lawmakers have been critical in stadium votes, especially for the 2-year-old Twins baseball facility. This year, Lanning and Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, are the main stadium sponsors.

While there is rural support from many for a Vikings stadium, there also are plenty of unanswered questions that supporters fear could delay or kill a stadium bid.

The Vikings want a $1 billion-plus stadium at a former ammunition factory site in the northern Ramsey County community of Arden Hills. A report released Wednesday raises questions about the cost of cleaning up the site, if work can be completed quickly enough for the Vikings and whether preliminary plans include enough money.

A Monday night vote by a Ramsey County committee to not require the public to approve a new sales tax to help finance the stadium runs against an attitude of many in the Legislature that the public should vote on any tax plan.

With all the questions, a special session may need to wait.

"I don't think anything can be done until there is a final package," Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said.

"Under the right set of circumstances, the right details and the right financing package," Howe said he could see some Republican Senate support for a stadium, but in no case would it be overwhelming.

Lanning said a special session would need to convene by Thanksgiving, before lawmakers' schedules make it impossible to coordinate a time.

"It is going to be a bit more difficult to do it next session," he added, when some legislative leaders predict lawmakers will be finished in April.

Besides plans for a short session, the fact that 2012 is an election year likely will make a stadium vote tougher to cast. Many Minnesotans object to state involvement in a stadium and many incumbents fear a pro-stadium vote would come back to haunt them on Election Day.

Also, lawmakers' attention will turn away from a stadium on Feb. 21, the day a judicial panel plans to release new legislative district maps.

"Once those plans come out, pretty much everything else ends," veteran Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said.

Redistricting, elections and economic woes will combine to hurt stadium chances, Stumpf added. "You have all three pressure points that will almost paralyze the Legislature."

Many rural lawmakers said their constituents are split on the stadium issue.

"I get just as many comments asking me to support the stadium as I do asking me not to support the stadium because the state has so many other pressing needs," Anzelc said.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said about 70 percent of his constituents oppose any state funding for a stadium, but at the same time want Minnesota to keep the Vikings.

Lanning predicted that team owners will sell the Vikings if they do not get a new stadium.

The team says it needs a new stadium approved by the end of this football season, when its Metrodome lease runs out. While owners claim they will not move the team, they could sell it and the new owners could move it to a place like Los Angeles, which is looking for a new National Football League team.

"If you paid $600 million for a business and the current conditions are such that you are going to lose money, you are going to try to get out of it," Lanning said.

Lanning said stadium supporters all along have known "this is an uphill struggle," but he and other backers will work the next two or three weeks to pull together a specific proposal.

"In the next couple of weeks, it is going to be real critical," Lanning said, adding that after next week legislative leaders may have a better idea of whether a specials session will be needed.

The current Vikings home, the Metrodome in Minneapolis, is not well suited for the team, its owners say.

"The Metrodome has served us well for 30 years, but that facility is just not going to get the job done for the next 20, 30, 40 years," Lanning said.

The Moorhead lawmaker also said that people may have forgotten that the Vikings began the process offering to pay $230 million, but he expects the team to pay nearly half of the $1 billion stadium cost.

Rep. Andrew Falk, D-Murdock, said that a special session should not be considered.

Falk said action should wait until lawmakers return to St. Paul in three months. Special sessions should be saved for major decisions and a stadium "doesn't rise to that level," he said.

The Vikings have sought a stadium for more than a decade, and Falk that there is no reason to rush now.

Falk said he likes the idea of allowing Ramsey County residents to vote on a sales tax increase, even though the Ramsey County Charter Commission Monday voted against the concept.

Falk was not happy that the Vikings were not ready with a plan earlier this year. "It seems like the Vikings have had multiple years to work on this. ... I don't know that I buy that there is a sudden rush at the moment."

Until late in the 2011 session, the team did not have a local government partner, a stadium plan or a finance plan, Falk said.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.