Republicans want sales tax referendum for stadium

Mall of America Field
Mall of America Field and downtown Minneapolis, Minn. Sept. 28, 2011. Despite the team's preference, talk continues about putting the stadium in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

As Gov. Mark Dayton continues to hear suggestions about the best way to finance a new pro football stadium, there's growing concern that the site preferred by the Minnesota Vikings in Ramsey County could come with strings attached.

Minnesota Vikings officials want the Legislature to allow Ramsey County to increase the sales tax to help pay for a new stadium, and they want lawmakers to waive a requirement for a public vote on the tax increase. But the Republican-controlled Legislature appears reluctant to allow the tax increase without a referendum.

Team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf have said that the best place for a new stadium is Ramsey County. They say the stadium on the drawing board there would provide the best game-day experience.

Despite the team's preference, talk continues about putting the stadium in Minneapolis. One reason may be that the Vikings don't want a public vote on a Ramsey County sales tax increase — a requirement they say would kill the deal. That doesn't sit well with many Republican lawmakers who say they were elected on a promise to keep a lid on taxes.

"It seems like it would be unlikely to pass without the referendum provision," said state Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge.

Nienow said he thinks the Legislature won't give Ramsey County the authority to raise the sales tax without voter approval. He said state law is clear: local option sales tax increases require voter approval.

If the Legislature removes the referendum and allows Ramsey County officials to raise the tax, Nienow said, that will disenfranchise voters.

"Those county commissioners were never elected with that authority," he said. "The voters never had a chance to have their say and ask them eye to eye at the door 'You want me to vote for you, what are you going to do on my taxes for this stadium.' "

Nienow isn't the only Republican lawmaker insisting on a referendum.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch both say they'd prefer to see voters have their say before the sales tax can be raised. House Majority Leader Matt Dean said he senses his colleagues won't vote for a plan that doesn't include the referendum.

Dean said he was in the Minnesota House when the Legislature exempted Hennepin County from holding a countywide referendum for the new Minnesota Twins ballpark in downtown Minneapolis. He said the makeup of this Legislature is very different.

"It would be my prediction that there is much more support now to have people have the ability to vote then there was in 2006," he said.

But others argue that lawmakers should be consistent on stadium issues. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he supports the Ramsey County sales tax increase without a referendum.

"I think requiring Ramsey County to hold a referendum for really the same kind of a project that we didn't ask Hennepin County to do that on is not fair to Ramsey," Bakk said.

Minneapolis officials are using the debate over Ramsey County's sales tax to their advantage. Mayor R.T. Rybak met privately with Dayton on Monday to discuss three different plans for a stadium in his city. He argued that each would be less costly than the Arden Hills site in Ramsey County.

Rybak told reporters after the meeting that he wanted to honor the Vikings commitment to Ramsey County, but said the plan is facing resistance in the Legislature.

"That project has not gotten done, and it seems to be at a very difficult stage here at the Legislature," the mayor said. "It's time for us to put forward some of the ideas that we've had and try our best to convince the Wilfs that this is the place where they can prosper."

Dayton, who is staying neutral on the site, acknowledged the referendum as a possible roadblock. He hasn't taken a position on whether a referendum should be required.

The problem for Rybak is that he also wants a citywide sales tax increase to pay for the Vikings stadium and to renovate the Target Center. That too, would require public approval.

Rybak hopes state lawmakers will give the city an exemption similar to the one Ramsey County wants. But Rybak said he's also open to allowing an expansion of gambling to finance the stadium, if it means the Vikings stay in Minneapolis.

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