Supporters of a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings got a big boost this week when Republicans in the Minnesota Senate elected Dave Senjem of Rochester as majority leader.
Senjem has been a vocal supporter of a new stadium and has advocated for a specific funding source. But stadium supporters still face the big challenge of finding a plan that has enough support to pass.
The debate over whether to use public money for a new Vikings stadium has caused a bit of waffling among lawmakers. Some legislators who typically aren't shy about voicing their opinions are leaving a lot of wiggle room on whether they'll back a stadium.
Senjem has been part of a private working group writing a stadium financing bill and has made his stand clear. Earlier this week, he said the Legislature should continue working on a stadium deal.
'I don't know in the end exactly how this is going to work but we're going to give it a fair shot and a good shot," he said.
Senjem said he expects the Legislature to come forward with a stadium plan in the upcoming session. But the working group needs more time to complete a deal, he said.
"It's got enough momentum and enough involvement by enough people to keep going and see if we can find that magic formula that might be acceptable to enough people to make this work," he said.
The choice of Senjem as majority leader eases some apprehension among Vikings lobbyists and other stadium supporters who were worried that Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, would win the top position. Hann opposes public financing for a new stadium and any expansion of gambling in Minnesota. Both of those issues are key, because Gov. Mark Dayton and other stadium supporters have said some sort of gambling expansion is needed to finance part of the stadium.
Senjem has been the chief backer of "racino" legislation in the Senate that would allow horse racing tracks to operate slot machines.
"You don't need to be a genius to know that we would much rather have the Senate Majority Leader be someone open to gambling and in particular, racino, than someone like Sen. Hann," said Ron Rosenbaum, spokesman for the Canterbury Park Horse Track in Shakopee.
The new Senate Majority Leader's election helps Canterbury's effort to win slot machines, said Rosenbaum, who is hopeful about their prospects in 2012. But having Senjem in the post doesn't guarantee anything, he said.
Rosenbaum said Racino supporters are pushing lawmakers to consider using the funds for a new Vikings stadium and to send Minnesota school districts financing that the state has deferred. The "school shift," an accounting maneuver, helped balance the state's budget.
"It's no secret that the stadium and the school shift are going to be major issues and we think, and are confident, that Racino can solve one or both of those problems," Rosenbaum said.
The state budget department estimates slot machines at the state's two horse tracks would generate $141 million a year for Minnesota in fiscal year 2015.
But some lawmakers say all the talk about gambling and the stadium is a waste of time. Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said he is not interested in any expansion of gambling to build a new Vikings stadium.
Hayden said he hopes the Legislature doesn't address the stadium issue at all in 2012.
"Once again, we're going to spend a lot of time talking about building a $1 billion stadium instead of talking about how do people get their medical care," Hayden said. "How do we figure out how to pay the schools back, how do we figure out how to develop and create jobs with a good solid public infrastructure, capital investment bill? I think those are the things that Minnesotans want us to talk about."
Hayden's plea doesn't follow party lines. Dayton and some other Democrats support using public money for a new stadium, as do some Republicans like Senjem.
A spokesman for the Vikings said the team's owners have a solid relationship with Senjem but specific details about the stadium plan — including the site and financing — still need to be worked out.