GOP lawmakers stuck on Vikings stadium issueby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — It's unlikely that state lawmakers will meet their self-imposed deadline to adjourn the legislative session today. One of the main sticking points is the bill to fund the construction of a new football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
And that bill is putting Republican lawmakers in a political bind because they want to act on other issues first. It's not the way top Republicans were expecting this session to play out.
GOP legislative leaders were confident coming out of last year's state government shutdown. They stared down Gov. Dayton, a DFLer, over a tax increase he wanted passed -- and they won. With that victory in hand, they appeared ready to be even more aggressive with plans to overhaul state government.
But that was before Dayton lobbed a stadium grenade into their laps last fall, when he called for the Legislature to pass a Vikings stadium bill during a special session. Since then, GOP legislative leaders have tried unsuccessfully to put the pin back in. The issue is now set to blow up in their faces as Dayton and Democrats call for a vote on the bill.
"This is Minnesota's chance to keep the Vikings in Minnesota. If we don't act or if we vote no, all bets are off," said Dayton during a Saturday news conference.
Dayton and DFL leaders called for an immediate vote on the stadium bill on Saturday. The bill has gone through every committee it had to and is waiting for votes by the full House and Senate.
House DFL Minority Leader Paul Thissen said Democrats would put up half the votes needed to pass the bill -- meeting a demand Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers issued early in the session.
But with no deal reached yet with Dayton over tax cuts for businesses or a bonding bill to pay for state construction projects, Zellers responded that he didn't think the stadium bill had enough support to pass.
"We said we wouldn't bring the bill up on the House floor if it was going to fail," said Zellers. "They haven't come to us and said now is the time bring it up. If you want to short circuit the process and take some cheap political shots in the process, this is what you do."
Zellers and GOP Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem are in a difficult position. A spokesman for the Vikings said he believed there was enough support to pass the $1 billion stadium plan in both houses. The media have been covering every twist of the debate, and Vikings fans who aren't typically engaged in the legislative process are watching the issue closely for fear that they could lose their team.
The state's business community, which generally tends to line up with Republicans, is also lobbying heavily to get the stadium bill passed this year.
Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said a few weeks ago that General Mills, U.S. Bancorp, Target, Wells Fargo and many small businesses want to see the stadium issue resolved.
"Zellers is hearing the love of the business community for the stadium on this deal. It's one that has been worked out with us in the room," said Weaver.
But while the issue is popular with Vikings fans and some of the party's biggest financial backers, one key group remains firmly opposed -- fiscally conservative Republican voters who see the stadium as a boondoggle.
Over the weekend several hundred people turned out in the rain and cold for an anti-tax rally on the Capitol lawn. Most held signs criticizing the state and federal governments for spending too much. One participant, Diana Strauss of St. Paul, said she can't believe a Republican Party that preaches limited government is even discussing the issue.
"They've got to do something, I guess, before their session ends, but I really wish they would look at other things that are going to help Minnesotans rather than spend a lot of money. I can't afford to go to a Vikings game," she said.
The divide among Republicans over the stadium bill is evident in the Legislature. Several GOP members of the Senate tried to kill the bill in committee hearings. They also used procedural motions to slow it down. Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he'll keep trying to kill it.
"I will certainly use whatever tools that are at my disposal to oppose this thing, just like I respect the proponents' right to move it forward," said Thompson. "I was sent here to do a job and I'll do it to the best of my ability, and in this sense that's stopping the legislation."
Many Democrats oppose the stadium plan too, but their party doesn't control the Legislature. Now it's up to the Republicans to decide how much they want to get out of the session, and what they're willing to give up to get it.