No strike, but new stadiums still don’t top Legislature’s priorities

ABy Libby George and Andrew Pritchard

Although Major League Baseball players will not strike this year, the Twins may strike out if they ask the state Legislature for stadium funding again.

Gubernatorial candidates and key lawmakers said other state issues have priority.

Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, the DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate from Erskine, said he viewed the Twins stadium as a backburner issue.

“If they don’t strike, then I support the Hennepin County board to help fund the stadium,” he said.

“We will not use any state funds. Owners have the responsibility to pay half of it, then different user fees, and if they need a backup, city sources can help,” Moe added.

He referred to the stadium as “an asset,” and said he would ensure Minnesotans benefit economically, should it be created.

“When a team gets a new stadium, its value appreciates, and I would make sure taxpayers get a portion of the appreciated value of the team,” Moe said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty opposed the stadium funding plan in the last legislative session as state House majority leader.

“As governor, I would like to try to keep professional sports in Minnesota, but I have to do that with my principles. I do not support public subsidies for professional sports,” he said.

Pawlenty said private funding and pure user fees should be implemented to fund a stadium, and that counties should be allowed to bid on a stadium.

“I am tired of all the public time in the Legislature taken up with sports,” Green Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel said.

“They are very wealthy clubs, and very wealthy players,” he said, “and I think they should take care of (the stadium).

“There are more important concerns. I want to make sure state water is drinkable and the fish are edible.”

Independence Party candidate and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Penny was the only candidate to commit any sort of state funding.

“I think 20 percent is justifiable,” said Penny, who also is senior fellow and co-director of the University’s Humphrey Institute Policy Forum.

“There is some broad benefit to Minnesota and there are some economic benefits,” he said, “but the rest of the money should come from private investors and taxes on facilities.

“It is something we have to deal with and keep the public cost at minimum.”

Gophers/Vikings Stadium

Averting a strike might have salvaged remaining support for the Twins stadium funding in the next legislative session.

In a recent letter to Twins shortstop and union representative Denny Hocking, state Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, wrote that the threat of a players strike “has all but dissolved the public’s desire to contribute to a new stadium.”

Penny was optimistic about the decision not to strike.

“It gives the Twins an opportunity to win the pennant and move on to the World Series, which will excite the public about the Twins,” Penny said.

When asked if antipathy toward a Twins stadium would shift support to the proposed Gophers/Vikings stadium, candidates and lawmakers said the issue would be a lesser priority in the next legislative session.

“Eventually we will be able to have a stadium, and the Vikings will help pay,” Moe said.

Moe said the issue would likely be addressed during the upcoming legislative session, but he did not see it as a priority and wouldn’t commit any state funding.

“It will probably be up to the University of Minnesota and particularly the Vikings to help pay for it,” he said. “We will have a public stadium financed by private sources.”

Penny also said he saw no hurry to build a new stadium on campus.

“There will be a Gopher and Vikings stadium down the line,” he said. “We have the Vikings under contract at the Metrodome until 2011, so there is no rush.”

“I have said that I’d be willing to support an on-campus Gophers/Vikings stadium, but I do not support public subsidies for professional sports,” Pawlenty said.

Pentel said he was not open to public financing of any stadium.

“I’d give a little deference to the Gophers side, but the Vikings … at some point there’s got to be a line you draw,” he said. “These teams signed contracts to play in these stadiums.”

Both houses’ higher education committee chairwomen said an on-campus stadium would be a secondary concern for both the University and the Legislature.

“We need to see what the package will look like,” Sen. Deanna Wiener, DFL-Eagan said.

Before the strike decision was announced, Wiener said some legislators would be turned off to stadium funding entirely, while others would consider an alternative bonding project.

Peggy Leppik, a Golden Valley Republican not seeking re-election, said a baseball strike wouldn’t necessarily turn support for a Twins stadium into legislative backing for a new Gophers/Vikings facility.

“I don’t see (the strike) having a detrimental effect. Whether it would necessarily translate into funding for a Gophers/Vikings stadium, I don’t know,” she said. “… I don’t think it would hurt. I just don’t know if it would help.”

Ordinarily, the 2002-03 legislative session would be devoted to budget issues, with major bonding projects, such as a stadium, considered again during the 2003-04 session.

But lawmakers face a March deadline to take advantage of $51.5 million available through an NFL matching-grant program for teams seeking to build stadiums.

Leppik said the Legislature’s first University priority will be the institution’s budget request.

“The major issue is going to be funding for the ‘U’ and (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) and financial aid.” she said. “The focus is definitely on the budget.”

Wiener also said a Gophers/Vikings stadium would be a secondary issue for the University.

“I think putting their budget in order should be their first priority, and I trust that it will be,” she said.

Leppik added that legislators probably would not want to fund any more bonding projects than necessary because of the state’s budget deficit.

However, she said, the Legislature might revisit a bonding issue if there were “compelling reasons” that made a non-academic University project seem attractive or pressing.

“It’s hard for me to guess which items are coming back,” she said.

The NFL grant would be a useful funding source, but a Gophers/Vikings stadium would still be weighed against other projects, she said.

Wiener said several other issues would come before a Gophers/Vikings stadium.

“We’ve got a priority first and foremost to take care of our education system, take care of our transportation system, and figure out how we’re going to fill a $2 billion deficit,” she said.

The current deal between the University and the Vikings calls for Vikings owner Red McCombs to provide $100 million in addition to the NFL grant. The University would donate an on-campus stadium location and build a $60 million parking facility.

The University awarded four contracts Aug. 1 for pre-design issues, including a conceptual building plan, traffic and parking planning and resolving utility and pollution problems.

Libby George and Andrew Pritchard cover politics and welcome comments at [email protected] and [email protected]