As stadium battle starts, House Speaker Zellers is non-combatant

Kurt Zellers
House Speaker Kurt Zellers won't say how he intends to vote on the Vikings stadium bill, although he said he does not support public funding for stadiums.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

The first committee hearing on a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings will be held today at the Capitol.

The Senate Local Government and Elections Committee is the first stop in what is expected to be several committee hearings on the $975 million stadium. Several issues, mostly policy matters, could be an obstacle to getting stadium funding passed into law this session.

Another obstacle could be the top Republican in the Minnesota House.

The plan for a publically subsidized $975 million football stadium has the backing of some powerful state officials. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem and DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk are all behind the proposal. But missing from that list is Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers.

DFL Rep. Terry Morrow of St. Peter says Zellers needs to take a stand.

"The speaker takes a leadership position on a major bill that needs to go through the Legislature, and I think it casts a very dark light indeed upon the stadium bill if the speaker is not willing to step forward and make sure that the bill moves through" Morrow said.

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Morrow notes that the long-debated Twins stadium bill did not become law until former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum and former DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson publicly backed the bill.

Kurt Zellers
Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers, left, gets some help closing the first day of the 2012 legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Zellers, by contrast, won't say how he is going to vote on the Vikings stadium bill although he said he does not support public funding for stadiums. Zellers downplayed his importance in whether the legislation passes.

"I don't believe that pushing a bill to fund a stadium is showing leadership," Zellers said. "I think allowing it a fair and open process at the Capitol, meaning that it will go through the committee process just like any other bill, both for the members that are going to be voting on it but most importantly, the most critical part, is that the public has the chance to actually weigh in on this."

Zellers is trying to balance a Republican caucus that is divided on the stadium issue. Some Republicans support the bill because they believe it will create construction jobs and improve the state's quality of life. Others oppose it because it expands gambling in the form of electronic pull-tabs or they don't support subsidizing a private business with public money.

Stadium backer Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, said Zellers' neutral stand does not help his cause, but neither does he think it kills the legislation.

"If he really doesn't care what happens, then he doesn't care and that's fine. He has the right to do that. I think we can get support without leadership being behind it. I'm confident of that," Kriessel said. "It makes it a little tougher, of course, but I think we can do it."

Kriesel said the public deserves to know where each lawmaker stands on the issue. Zellers' hesitation to take a stand could be because polls show most voters don't support public money being spent on a new stadium. Zellers is mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate for 2014 and is also tasked with helping Republicans win back the majority in 2012.

Gov. Dayton at the stadium press conference
Gov. Mark Dayton stands beside an artist's rendering of the Vikings stadium that could be built following a March 1 deal between the team, state and City of Minneapolis. Dayton declined label Zellers as an obstacle to the bill, but said he is more worried about getting the votes in the Legislature and Minneapolis City Council to pass it.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, dismissed the notion that Zellers is trying to duck a tough vote.

"The speaker has done a nice job of leaving the field wide open and letting the Vikings have a lot of room to work with on it," Hoppe said. "There have been a lot of people who have said 'He doesn't want to have a vote on it.' I have never heard him say that."

And it isn't just supporters of the stadium who want that vote. Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, said Zellers should let the bill come up for a vote so the Legislature can tell the Vikings that their plan costs too much.

"I'd like to see the bill come so we can make progress," Runbeck said "We would make progress frankly if we could say 'This is out. Vikings, go back to the drawing board and find something that is more modest in terms of cost and you'll pick up more of the responsibility for.' "

Dayton declined to say if Zellers would be an obstacle to the bill. He said he is more worried about getting the votes in the Legislature and Minneapolis City Council to pass it.