Bill to eliminate board that runs U.S. Bank Stadium moves forward

The second half of the first game at the stadium.
Fans watch the second half of an NFL preseason football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the San Diego Chargers in U.S. Bank Stadium Aug. 28, 2016, in Minneapolis.
Andy Clayton-King | AP 2016

Updated: 4:40 p.m. | Posted: 1 p.m.

A plan to overhaul the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority took its first step forward at the Capitol on Monday.

House DFLers joined Republicans in support of a measure that would radically restructure the agency at the center of a scandal over perks handed out at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Since the stadium opened in August, members and staff of the MSFA have invited more than 150 family members, friends and political allies to take in Vikings games and other events from the agency's two luxury boxes on the stadium's main concourse. Some also got free parking and tens of thousand of dollars in free food. That's all according to a report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor released last week.

"It's time for us to clean house and say that we're not going to tolerate this anymore, and it's not the good old boys club," said bill sponsor Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth. "This is about fixing it so that people know that their tax dollars are being used prudently and wisely and that it has integrity in the process."

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The stadium agency says it has banned friends and family from its two suites, made other changes, and welcomed changes suggested in the auditor's report.

But Anderson said other problems remain. She noted the authority has both a board chair and an executive director, who each make well over six figures, as well as a 10-year-contract with an outside general manager to run the building. They're all expected to manage the main tenant, the Vikings, and help keep the place occupied the other 350 days a year it's available.

"I think that begs the question of why do we have three people doing the same job?" Anderson said.

She and State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, have introduced legislation to change that.

It has three main features:

• First, it directs the MSFA to sell its suites to the Vikings, and allows the authority to let people into stadium events at no charge only for publicly documented business purposes.

• Second, it abolishes the long-standing authority structure, dating back decades: Governors have appointed three members of stadium panels, and the city of Minneapolis has appointed two. That would be replaced by four commissioners appointed by the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate, as well as a staff member from the Legislative Auditor. That would make it an arm of the Legislature, rather than the executive branch, although the governor and the city of Minneapolis would each have a member.

• Finally, the proposal would end the appointment of an agency chair by the governor and effectively end it as a paid position. Everyone on the authority would get a $55 a day per diem, and members would themselves elect a chair every other year.

The bill also has a retroactivity clause — it directs the MSFA to try and get its previous guests to pay up for tickets, food and parking.

The plan got brief debate in the House Government Operations committee. An effort to put the changes off and an amendment that would have banned legislators from stadium suites were both defeated on party line votes.

State Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, was the only no vote on the bill among 18 lawmakers from both parties at the hearing. He said he didn't want to make big changes before the Super Bowl, coming to the new stadium next February. The NCAA men's basketball Final Four comes the year after that.

"This is going to be a big event coming forward, and I think blowing it up now, in the middle of all this planning that's going on, you're going to be starting fresh and it's going to cause problems going forward," Nelson said after the hearing.

But he added that he does think changes are necessary.

"There were mistakes made," Nelson said. "The tone-deafness of the sports facilities commission coming out of this probably didn't help. But it's ginned this up to be a political football that's going on and I think it's there to embarrass the governor and embarrass the sports facilities commission."

And the commission's key players have political connections: former House majority leader Tony Sertich is one of the five members. The chair, Michele Kelm-Helgen, is a former staffer for Gov. Mark Dayton, and she has longstanding family ties to the DFLExecutive director Ted Mondale is son of the former vice president and a former DFL lawmaker as well.

But Republicans called it a simple matter of good government.

"There are a lot of changes that have to happen for this type of abuse, and I do think it's abuse, to not happen again," said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, before voting for the bill.

The Senate is expected to soon take up a similar measure.