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Greater Minnesota lawmakers pledge stadium support - for a price

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) As the Legislature prepares to review the latest Twins stadium plan, a group of lawmakers from greater Minnesota are dangling a large bloc of votes for the project.

But they want something in return.

The bipartisan group promises to support the stadium plan in exchange for the freedom to pursue local sales tax increases without getting permission from the Legislature first.

"Like Hennepin County, we are all trying to work together to get better things in our cities," said Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea. "We would argue these are all economic development projects. What we hope is there is an opportunity for us all to help each other."

Hennepin County commissioners voted Tuesday to send the stadium plan to the Legislature for its approval. Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said House committees would begin hearings on the plan next week.

The offer by Dorman and more than a dozen colleagues further complicates what was already likely to be a thorny stadium debate at the Capitol. Many lawmakers from Hennepin County itself either oppose the plan outright, or want a county referendum on the proposed 0.15 percent sales tax increase needed to pay for the $478 million stadium.

But others, including Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, support the plan as presented by Hennepin County, which would not include a public vote. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he'd prefer a public vote, but doesn't consider the lack of one a deal-breaker.

The offer by the greater Minnesota legislators could carry enough votes to push the plan through.

Under current law, communities seeking the so-called local option sales tax increases must get approval from the Legislature before going ahead with them. That's why Hennepin County needs the OK from lawmakers for its stadium tax. Critics say that system is arbitrary and has blocked communities from being able to pursue local improvements because of unrelated political pressures or legislative rivalries.

"It's been a piecemeal approach," said Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh. He was one of several dozen greater Minnesota mayors and city officials who joined Dorman and other legislators at a news conference.

They said local projects that might be funded by sales tax increases include transportation improvements and a new library in Winona to an industrial park in Willmar to regional parks in the St. Cloud area to trail improvements in Bemidji.

The greater Minnesota lawmakers say under their proposal, residents of the communities where new sales taxes are proposed would get to vote on the increases - something not included in Hennepin County's stadium proposal.

Sviggum said he supports taking the local sales taxes issue away from the Legislature. But he doesn't want to link the issue with the stadium. "I happen to believe that each piece of legislation should be approved on its own merits," he said.

But, he acknowledged, the offer could come into play in the inevitable horse-trading over the stadium issue. Sviggum predicted Wednesday that the plan forwarded by Hennepin County ultimately will be approved by lawmakers this year.

Dorman and one colleague, DFL Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, said they'd only support the stadium if they achieve the local sales tax change. Other greater Minnesota legislators, however, said they weren't yet willing to link the two so explicitly.

Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said the governor has in the past advocated a less arbitrary method of approving local sales tax options. But McClung added he didn't think Pawlenty would want the issue tied to the stadium.

Twins President Dave St. Peter said he hadn't heard the offer from the lawmakers and wanted time to examine it before offering comment.