U urges state to act on stadium

by Cati Vanden Breul

University officials and supporters are swamping lawmakers with e-mails and calls to approve an on-campus stadium deal in a fall special session.

State legislators did not vote on a Gophers stadium during the regular or special session this summer. Yet University officials still cross their fingers that the state will act on the bill before the next regular session convenes this winter.

But before the governor can approve a special session, he needs agreement from state legislators on its length and agenda, said Brian McClung, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s press secretary.

“First he would require the legislative caucuses to agree on the issues and ensure that it would be productive, focused and limited in time,” McClung said.

The session would probably last one or two days, and the Gophers stadium bill would most likely be on the agenda, he said.

Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, chief author of the bill, said he was disappointed legislators did not vote on a Gophers stadium by the end of the regular session in May.

“It’s going to pass; we just have to get it to St. Paul,” Michel said.

He said he believes there is a 50-50 chance Pawlenty will call a special session.

“I’m encouraging University students, alumni and supporters to light a fire and contact legislators and the governor,” Michel said. “It’s time to bring Gopher football back to campus.”

If a special session is called, University Athletics Director Joel Maturi said he believes legislators will pass the bill.

“I feel very, very confident that the bill we have before them will pass,” Maturi said.

The University has asked the state to pay 40 percent of the projected cost of the stadium, which Maturi said is a fair agreement.

“We are the state’s institution,” he said. “I remain hopeful and I believe strongly that we have bipartisan support.”

It’s important to get the bill passed now because costs will continue to increase, Maturi said.

“The longer we delay, the more the cost will go up,” he said. “We believe this is the right thing at the right time Ö the (Metrodome) will not be there forever.”

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he thinks the stadium bill would pass in the Legislature with broad support, although nothing is final until the votes are counted.

“It would take a significant pledge from the private sector, and it seems we have that,” he said.

So far the University has raised $50 million in pledges from corporate and private sponsors, said Linda Thrane, interim vice president for University Relations. TCF Bank pledged the largest amount, $35 million, for stadium naming rights.

“We’re well on our way there,” Thrane said.

In order to keep the pledges flowing, and not lose the support already offered, the state must show it is willing to partially fund the stadium, she said.

“Donors might find other uses for their charitable dollars; it’s essential that the state show their support,” Thrane said. “They could really help us kick off a serious fundraising campaign.”

But Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she doesn’t think the governor will call a special session in light of the government shutdown earlier this summer.

“He won’t call one unless there is total agreement, and I don’t think he will get it,” Kahn said.

While she’s not opposed to the idea of an on-campus Gophers stadium, Kahn said, she would prefer the Legislature wait until the next regular session to take up the bill.

“The moral about special sessions is that they’re not a good idea,” she said. “You have to know what’s an emergency and what isn’t.”

Some state legislators, including Kahn, said they are worried too much focus on the stadium might take away from the University’s academic mission.

“My priorities are for academic progress,” Kahn said. “We have still not made up for the horrendous cuts (to the University) we made two years ago.”

Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said the state should support both athletic and academic endeavors at the University.

“I think (the stadium) would be fine, but the first important thing is academic progress,” Pogemiller said. “If we make that kind of commitment to fund the stadium, we should make an equal commitment to some kind of academic piece.”

But Thrane said a potential stadium would bring revenue into the University that it could use for academic pursuits.

A special session would most likely occur in late October or early November, Sviggum said.

He said a new Twins stadium, teachers’ pensions, and a new hospital in Maple Grove, Minn., could also be on the agenda.