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Rural lawmakers question Vikings stadium chances

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.

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.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said about 70 percent of his continents 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.

Anzelc offered support for the Arden Hills site because it would be more convenient for northern Minnesotans.

"People can actually get to a game on a Sunday and get home Sunday night and get to work on Monday morning," he said, and feel safer than going to a downtown Minneapolis facility.

One of the problems the Viking face is the Wednesday report from the Metropolitan Council and Sports Facilities Commission says the team and Ramsey County underestimate the money needed to clean up the former munitions factory site.

"I expect the environmental remediation issues at the Arden Hills site to be costly and complicated," Anzelc said.

Howe said the Vikings have made a significant contribution to Minnesota and the state should provide needed infrastructure, such as highways.

"A statewide tax definitely is not going to happen," Howe said.

Like other lawmakers, the Red Wing senator senses that "the tempo has picked up in recent weeks.

Still, Howe sees questions that came out of Wednesday's report.

"I think it does raise some concerns, but I don't think there is anything in the report that prevents us from moving forward to making a decision, or at least put it to a vote," Howe added.

House Republican leaders are waiting for a meeting with Gov. Mark. Dayton, team officials and Ramsey County leaders before commenting on this week's developments.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said she remains convinced a public vote is needed before raising taxes, but will take into consideration Ramsey County's position.

In an interview, Koch said she is eager to hear Dayton's stadium proposals, including where some $300 million in state money will come from.

"He's the governor and he has been very vocal on trying to move this forward," Koch said. "The chief executive always needs to come forward and get behind the project."

The leader said it may be too late to deal with a stadium in a special session.

Lawmakers are all over the place in stadium support.

Ingebrigtsen, a conservative who does not want to raise taxes, said he could consider giving Ramsey County permission to raise its sales tax and putting a new tax on sports memorabilia.

"If people know that when they go buy a Gophers and a Vikings uniform, it will go to a stadium, I don't have a problem with that," he said, comparing it with hunting and fishing fees the state collects.

However, Ingebrigtsen said, he would draw the line at taxing areas outside of the Twin Cities. "I don't think the rural folks should be paying for a big business in the metro area."

The senator also suggested looking at some type of expanded gambling to fund a stadium. "The Indian community has had a corner on the market for years."

Politics is slowing stadium work, Stumpf said.

While Arden Hills is the Vikings' preferred site, an undercurrent remains from Minneapolis supporters wanting the stadium there.

"There is a heightened tension between Ramsey County, Hennepin County, Minneapolis, Arden Hills, the Metropolitan Sports Commission," Stumpf said.

Dayton has been mentioning Minneapolis as a possible site, even though the Vikings have passed. Stumpf said that partly is because the governor's point man on stadium issues, former Sen. Ted Mondale, is from Minneapolis.

"There is way more politics in this thing that I would dare try to understand," Stumpf said.

The polluted Arden Hills site, which would need to be cleaned up, is a good place for the stadium, he said. "What other purpose can you use that old ammunition plant for?"

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.