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Stadium bill survives narrow vote
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Vikings Vice President Mike Kelly lamented the amount of public financing for a Vikings stadium in the bill. He says it's not enough. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to build new stadiums for the Minnesota Twins and Vikings narrowly cleared its most significant legislative hurdle yet on Tuesday. After more than a week of heavy financial scrutiny, the House Tax Committee voted 15-13 to approve the both facilities, as well as a new stadium for the University of Minnesota Gopher football team. The bill's ultimate fate, however, remains uncertain. And while the two professional teams praised the progress thus far, the Vikings say the plan, in its current form, doesn't provide enough public assistance to build a successful football stadium.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Taxes Committee spent more than a week picking apart the plan's financing model, and Twins Sports President Jerry Bell says the committee's seal of approval is a welcome endorsement.

"In this committee there have been a couple of changes that have been helpful. And I think that there's a couple of changes that are going to need a little more work. But as I said, the legislative process is a step-by-step process, and we'll keep going through the process," Bell said.

But the close vote highlights the divided feelings that remain over the stadium debate. Combined, the Twins and Vikings facilities are likely to top $1 billion. The plan calls for the Twins and Vikings to pay for at least one-third of those costs, with a mix of state and local revenues expected to cover the remainder.

Those public subsidies drew the attention of stadium opponents. DFLer Mike Jaros of Duluth noted recent budget reductions in social programs that have come in response to the state's ongoing budget deficits, and Jaros questioned the wisdom of contributing to new stadiums.

Over a billion dollars to subsidize and to fund cake and ice cream -- dessert -- when we took bread and butter away from -- and medicine -- away from people who are desperately in need in this state.
- Rep. Mike Jarros, DFL-Duluth

"Over a billion dollars to subsidize and to fund cake and ice cream -- dessert -- when we took bread and butter away from -- and medicine -- away from people who are desperately in need in this state," Jaros said.

To address some of those concerns, the bill was amended on a nearly unanimous vote to require a voter referendum before a local jurisdiction could raise new tax revenues to cover its portion of the construction costs.

Sites in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul are considered the front-runners for hosting the Twins, while Anoka County has made the strongest pitch for landing the Vikings.

While St. Paul officials have welcomed a referendum, representatives for the other sites and the teams have argued against one, citing a public vote as a potential stumbling block.

But with or without a referendum, the Vikings, at least, argue the bill is simply not generous enough. The state's contribution comes mainly through a tax refund that allows the teams to retain a portion of their sales and income taxes for use in stadium construction.

Vikings Vice President Mike Kelly says that simply won't raise enough money to build a football stadium. Although it's unclear how much that so-called "tax increment" provision would raise, Kelly says it's likely to fall well short of an equal, three-way split between team, county, and state.

"The state's piece needs to be closer to a third of the total cost. And with the tax increment being really the only funding source, it's just not going to do the job," he said.

Kelly says he's nonetheless encouraged to see the bill advance, and he says the team will continue to work with lawmakers and a the governor's office to craft an acceptable compromise.

If the Vikings and Twins are successful, the University of Minnesota Gopher football team would be left behind at the Metrodome. To address that possibility, the bill was expanded to include an on-campus Gophers stadium that would be built with mostly private contributions. That state's share would fall just short of $90 million.

Committee Chair Ron Abrams proposed the three-stadium solution, and the Minnetonka Republican also called for another popular provision. Financing for a Twins stadium can not proceed until the team strikes a deal to return its games to television. Currently, most Twins games are inaccessible to most Minnesotans because of disagreements over what cable and satellite channels carry the games and who should pay for the broadcasts. The Abrams amendment calls for the team to get their games back on TV before stadium construction can commence.

"Frankly, I don't think anybody cares how they get it, just that they do get it. And I point out that they're here looking for the subsidy," he said.

The bill now moves to the House Ways and Means Committee. The Senate has so far taken no action on its version of the stadium package.

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