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Stadium debate '99: Landscape changes, what about climate?
by Robert Whereatt and Jay Weiner

As proposals circulate for new or improved football or baseball stadiums in the Twin Cities, a survey of the political landscape finds sharp differences from the last time the Legislature took a serious look at the issue.

It was fall 1997 when then-Gov. Arne Carlson called a special session to consider a plan to build a Twins ballpark, and the response was a loud "No!"

Today, a different governor oversees the state, one who is less friendly toward the prospect of building a stadium for a pro team. The House has a new speaker, who also is less inclined to walk a political plank for a stadium. And Republicans now control the House.

Outside the State Capitol, things are different, too. This time, both the Vikings and the Twins want new playing fields, and the Vikings have a new owner in Texan Red McCombs.

This time, both Twin Cities mayors are actively pursuing stadium solutions. But they still will need approval from the Legislature for what they want to do; both plans involve a local sales tax, and one seeks a state contribution.

With the recent flurry of activity in St. Paul and Minneapolis, do these changes somehow create a new dynamic that would make passage of a stadium package more likely next year, when legislators return to St. Paul?

The short answer is probably not, according to interviews with several of the principals. Indeed, it may make it less likely.

Gov. Jesse Ventura, who consistently has opposed the use of general-fund dollars for a stadium, stirred the waters Friday when he advanced what he called his "put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is" plan. He said he would set up a special fund to which Minnesotans could contribute, with the money going toward a new stadium. He specifically suggested that they could donate money from their sales-tax rebates they'll receive later this summer.

Ventura initially said he wouldn't donate his own rebate, saying that pro sports need to get their economic house in order, but he later indicated that he could change his mind.

In either case, Ventura is a contrast to Carlson, who was perhaps the most active elected official supporting a new Twins stadium in 1997. He first proposed building it with a cigarette-tax increase, an idea that drew little support.

So ardently did he believe the state should do what is necessary to keep the Twins in Minnesota that Carlson, an opponent of expanding gambling in the state, eventually embraced a proposal to place slot machines at Canterbury Park, with some of the profits going to a stadium. That plan fell short, too.

In Carlson's view today, Ventura's position doesn't bode well for stadium supporters.

"It's very difficult to get anything past the Legislature, particularly when you have the governor against it," Carlson said. "Not having gubernatorial support takes the Legislature off the hook."

Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, who in 1997 helped round up support for a stadium package, voiced a similar sentiment.

"The Legislature is not going to get out in front on something like this," said Moe, adding that the chances of any stadium plan passing next year are remote.

During his election campaign, Ventura said he opposed using general funds for a stadium, although user fees, including a ticket tax, would be acceptable. As governor, he hasn't wavered from those views. His argument: Other public facilities, such as schools, aren't junked after 17 years, the age of the Metrodome.

On the other hand, he has praised St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman for seeking to put a stadium proposal, funded in part with a citywide sales tax, to a citywide referendum. Ventura has said he would like the entire state to vote on a stadium plan -- a position that, in a way, he advanced Friday with his "put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is" proposal.

In the Legislature

In 1997, House Speaker Phil Carruthers, DFL-Brooklyn Center, supported user fees for a stadium; last week Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, who's opposed to a new state-financed stadium, said he thought there would be little support for any stadium plan.

In the session that ended in May, legislators cut taxes and sought to control state spending, Sviggum said. To return next year and authorize St. Paul, Minneapolis or Hennepin County to impose some kind of a sales tax for a stadium would seem contradictory, he said.

"I don't think the House, and specifically my caucus, wants to send a mixed message."

Rep. David Bishop, R-Rochester, supported a plan in 1997 for building a stadium with user fees and special taxes on players. It failed. That vote, cast in a special session on the stadium issue, mortally wounded the stadium plan and probably any future one, said Bishop, now chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. In his view, stadium financing is "in a persistent vegetative state. The question is: How long do we keep it on life support?"

Not every legislator is so sure the issue cannot be revived.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, the most vocal elected opponent of using state dollars for stadium construction, said last week that the public's guard may be down, confident that its will has been done. "I wouldn't be wasting time on it if I thought it was a dead deal," he said.

On the field

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, who in 1997 introduced legislation to build a ballpark with profits from slot machines at Canterbury Park, said he may push his bill again. But he also said the economics of baseball militate against any plan passing.

"The Twins haven't done anything to improve their lot," he said, "and Major League Baseball hasn't done anything. The salaries are still out of sight."

In addition to the climbing salaries, the disparity in salaries between the game's have and have-not teams also has grown since 1997. The Twins are now far below the major-league salary average.

Vikings officials, just as eager to get a new stadium as the Twins, have been telling legislators that the lack of revenue-sharing in baseball shouldn't be held against them. The National Football League is the model for shared revenues among owners. In a series of recent meetings with legislators and business leaders, Vikings general manager Tim Connolly has stressed how healthy his league is and how his team "is a good investment."

In 1997, it was the football team that followed every move the Twins made, making sure that baseball didn't get a leg up. As the newly revived stadium debate goes forward, it could be the Twins seeking parity with the Vikings, whose popularity soared after last season's near run to the Super Bowl and whose stadium needs might fall on more sympathetic ears.

Balancing act

A plan announced last week by the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission to renovate the Metrodome laid out a series of options that illustrated how any stadium decision will require a balancing act of price, location, team stability and political will.

Sam Grabarski, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and a dogged supporter of seeking a stadium solution, thinks the absence of other major issues for his and other business associations could clear room for more stadium brainstorming.

"Here in Minneapolis we're not addressing the expansion of the Convention Center anymore, we've got the light-rail proposal passed, and property taxes are lower," he said. "It might allow all of us a chance to focus more on trying to solve the sports facilities problem. I'm not saying more open to taxes, just more open to working on it."

But if a recent event across the river is any indication, a stadium plan using public funding still could face vocal opposition.

On Thursday, a St. Paul forum on the prospect of a riverfront Twins ballpark was transformed into a community free-for-all when Coleman and a pair of consultants were shouted down and booed by about 80 demonstrators and hecklers.

One frustrated supporter, trying to learn details of the plan, stood and yelled "Let us listen!" as a group of sign-carriers chanted "Let us speak!"