Citizens in Minnesota's rural areas leery of stadium tax

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A few days before Dan Fabian headed to St. Paul this January to be sworn in as a new state representative, he was in a gas station in his hometown of Roseau when a hot topic came up: the Minnesota Vikings' desire for a new stadium. Fabian says he assured a store clerk he wouldn't support raising her taxes to pay for it.

"Then her co-worker turned around and said, 'You damn well better not, or I'll do anything in my power to make sure you don't get elected again,'" said Fabian, whose district lies not far from the Canadian border.

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Such is the political reality facing the Vikings and their political allies. The team wants taxpayers to pay more than half the cost for a new stadium to replace the 29-year-old Metrodome, which Vikings executives say is not profitable enough compared to other NFL facilities. But few Minnesota lawmakers -- especially those from places like Roseau -- can sell their own communities on helping to foot the bill for a stadium expected to cost nearly $1 billion.

What's much more likely is that some subset of Twin Cities taxpayers, in whichever city or county a new stadium is built, will bear the biggest tax burden. And the votes to impose it are likely to come mostly from the same greater Minnesota lawmakers who don't want to see their rural and small-town constituents taxed.

That's how the Minnesota Twins got state funding in 2006 for what is now Target Field. Most of the "yes" votes to authorize a .015 percent Hennepin County sales tax increase came from lawmakers outside the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, overwhelming the "no" votes that came from within the metro.

"It's kind of a sucker plan for whatever community gets stuck with it," said Sen. John Marty, a Roseville Democrat and longtime opponent of public money for stadiums. The Hennepin County Board approved the sales tax hike, but it never went to a voter referendum, as opponents wanted.

The Vikings have been pressing for a new stadium for years. Despite the state's estimated $5 billion budget deficit, support is seen as higher than in past years because the team is entering the final season of its Metrodome lease. The collapse of the Dome's roof in a December snowstorm also heightened pressure for what the Vikings often call a stadium "solution."

The two legislators leading the Vikings' push come from far outside the Twin Cities. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont (140 miles away) and Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead (240 miles away) both say hanging onto the Vikings benefits the whole state. But they say it would be impossible to push a statewide revenue-raiser through the Legislature for it no matter how the money would come.

"We are cutting social programs," Rosen said. "Putting state money towards a stadium just doesn't click right for people in that context."

The pair first promised a stadium plan in January and then in February. Rosen said this week it is coming "very soon" and would include funding sources that include user fees in the form of sales taxes on things like team merchandise, concessions and other stadium-related purchases plus a tax contribution from what Lanning called a local partner -- namely, taxpayers in one county or city, or in a regional collection of them.

So far, the only potential local partner out publicly is Ramsey County, where county board members have offered the site of a former army ammunition plant about 10 miles northeast of the Metrodome. They have floated the possibility of a half-cent county sales tax to help build the stadium, which has been estimated to cost at least $700 million.

Last month, a dozen Ramsey County legislators objected in a letter to the county board's courtship with the Vikings. "If we're going to raise a half-cent sales tax, I can think of about a thousand things I think Ramsey County needs more than a Vikings stadium," said Rep. Alice Hausman, a St. Paul Democrat.

But Hausman admitted it would be easy for the Vikings to take the same approach that worked for the Twins.

"All the greater Minnesota people will vote for it, and they will laugh at us because they'll get to vote for it and go home to their constituents and say, 'We saved the Vikings and you don't have to pay for it. Those metro people have to,'" Hausman said.

Vikings vice president for stadium development Lester Bagley said it was premature to discuss legislative strategy with the bill pending, but said the team believed it would get support from both the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.

State Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker (190 miles away) said that was the basic pitch he got in 2006 when Twins lobbyists and team supporters in the Legislature were trying to get him to support the Hennepin County sales tax.

"The argument I heard was: 'Larry, vote for it. It's not your tax dollar. You don't represent Hennepin County. It's a no-brainer. You're in Walker -- the people in Hennepin County can pay for it and your people can go down and enjoy it,'" Howes said. He ultimately voted against the Twins bill because he said he thought Hennepin County taxpayers should have been given a vote on the sales tax proposal. He said he wouldn't decide on a Vikings bill until it's introduced and he can review it.

Besides Ramsey County, other sites in the mix are the current Metrodome site in downtown Minneapolis,property adjacent to that site, a site near Target Field on the other, western side of downtown and in the suburb of Brooklyn Park, northwest of Minneapolis. But so far, elected officials from Minneapolis and Hennepin County have been hesitant to embrace the Vikings.

"This situation can't be another example of one county or one city paying solely for what we all know is a statewide facility," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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