The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

April 2, 2013

Lawmakers huddle up on Vikings stadium

ST. PAUL — Minnesota state lawmakers waded back into details of the Vikings stadium project Tuesday, amid building concerns about the reliability of tax revenue from gambling to pay the state's share.

The Legislative Commission on Minnesota Sports Facilities, a new House-Senate panel charged with oversight of Minnesota's publicly funded sports facilities, was created in last year's legislation authorizing construction of a $975 million, downtown Minneapolis football stadium. An October groundbreaking and a 2016 opening were targeted.

But members of the panel quickly raised concerns about shortfalls so far in tax revenue from an electronic gambling expansion that's supposed to cover the state's roughly one-third share of the total bill. The first construction bonds are scheduled to be sold in August, and Rep. Jim Davnie of Minneapolis said before lawmakers adjourn next month they should have strong assurances that the state will have enough money to make payments on those bonds before they're sold.

"I think a lot of people are apprehensive," said Davnie, a Democrat who voted against the stadium in 2012 and who expressed concerns at the time about the state's funding source. "Clearly the funding in the bill passed last year is not happening on the timeline anticipated."

Taxes on new electronic betting games in bars and restaurants were originally projected to generate $35 million in taxes by the end of the year for the stadium. That was cut to $17 million last November, and slashed down to $1.7 million in February. Backers say the new games are off to an unexpectedly slow start and need time to catch on.

Gov. Mark Dayton, a chief stadium booster, insisted again Tuesday that it's too soon to panic about funding shortfalls.

Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the state authority overseeing the new stadium, said project costs incurred so far -- payments to architects, environmental impact statements, traffic studies and other expenses -- have been covered with a $50 million down payment from the Vikings on their roughly $450 million share of the total cost. That was always the plan, Kelm-Helgen said, and was not made necessary by the lagging tax revenue from gambling.

The stadium bill included backup funding sources in the form of a Vikings-themed Minnesota Lottery game and a tax on luxury suites in the new stadium. But it's not clear those two pieces alone could raise enough if revenue continues to lag at the current rate. Davnie said he believed lawmakers would have to consider delaying the August bond sale if they're not confident that payments could be made without tapping the state's general fund -- even if it delays start of construction on the new stadium.

The new co-chairs of the legislative stadium group said the panel would dig more deeply into stadium financing questions at its next meeting.

"It's definitely something we're going to have to wrestle with," said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis.

Champion voted for the stadium bill last year; the downtown Minneapolis site is in his Senate district. His co-chair is Republican Sen. Julie Rosen, a chief sponsor of the stadium bill. In electing its leaders, panel members rejected a bid from Rep. Joe Atkins, who has been vocal in concerns about the stability of gambling revenue.

At the hearing, Kelm-Helgen gave a few hints about the look of the new stadium. In contrast to the Metrodome, which she called "a blimp and an island," she said its replacement would feature "lots of glass and light" and would be heavily connected to its surrounding neighborhood through plazas, pathways and possibly a skyway link to the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

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