On a 12-to-0 vote, the committee voted to require voter approval of a Hennepin County sales tax that would finance three quarters of the cost of a new ballpark for the Minnesota Twins.
The Twins and Hennepin County leaders say a referendum requirement is a stadium killer. They argue that it would add uncertainty to the process and delays that will increase construction costs.
While the vote is a setback for their efforts, Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said he didn't think the committee's vote indicated that the tide was turning against their proposal.
"I don't know what tide is turning where here, I think it's more of a whirlpool going on in here. I wouldn't call it a tide," he said.
The committee's action has created confusion among even the most seasoned political observers.
Over nearly a week of sometimes contentious deliberations the committee has appeared to flail without direction as it considers different stadium proposals.
The latest vote may force the members of the committee to pick one of two completely different approaches to stadium funding. The choices include a .15 percent sales tax in Hennepin County to build a Twins ballpark, or a half-percent seven-county, metro-wide sales tax that would fund not only a new Twins ballpark, but also a Vikings stadium in Blaine and transportation projects.
The Republican-controlled House already has passed the Hennepin County sales tax, but Senate DFLers are lining up behind the metro-wide tax.
"I think there's a sense that there's a majority of folks who would like us to look at a broader solution that includes both the Twins and Vikings and to do it in a way that saves the public money by reducing the financing costs and also gets us to move forward on transit," said DFL Sen. Steve Kelley of Hopkins.
Kelley says his metro-wide sales tax proposal does all that and doesn't require voter approval.
Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports Inc., says he's nervous that the latest twist in the debate could add another year to the Twins decade long shutout in trying to get a new ballpark built. But Bell also acknowledges that the committee vote means little at this point, especially since the panel has taken no final action. He says his impression is that Senate DFLers are working to get Sen. Kelley's bill passed and setting up a debate between the two proposals.
"They want to address Sen. Kelley's amendments combining the two bills. We haven't seen the end of this process yet, so we'll have to wait and see what happens in the next couple of days," Bell said on Monday.
Senate DFLers also seem intent on forcing Governor Pawlenty to take a stand on whether he supports the Hennepin County sales tax without voter approval. To date, Pawlenty has been noncommittal, saying he supports a referendum but he's willing to accept a plan that gives voters no say on the tax.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat called on Pawlenty to take a firmer stand in support of the Twins proposal. A spokesman for the governor was unavailable for comment
The referendum has been the main point of dispute in the debate over a new Twins ballpark. State law requires any local option sales tax to include a referendum and stadium opponents say the Twins or the Vikings should not receive the waiver they're asking for.
Dann Dobson, who leads a group that opposes taxpayer funding for stadiums, is pleased with the vote but is worried the committee will change course on the issue.
"If it holds, this will be great for the taxpayers," Dobson said. "My concern is that this is just for show at this point and that it will come out without requiring a vote by taxpayers."
It's also likely that the committee will vote again on a separate proposal that would finance a new on campus football stadium for the University of Minnesota. A Gopher bill was defeated twice in committee last week on tie votes. The committee chair says the members will have the chance to vote on different financing proposals when the committee resumes its work.