Minn. House overwhelmingly approves remake of stadium agency

Fans arrive at Vikings-Packers game Sunday.
Fans arrive at U.S. Bank Stadium before an NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Minneapolis.
Andy Clayton-King | AP

Lawmakers took the first steps toward restructuring the agency that runs U.S. Bank Stadium, in the wake of a months-long scandal.

By a 122-7 vote, the House approved a measure to abolish the current 5-member Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, appointed mostly by the governor, and replace it with a 7-member body appointed mostly by legislators. An amendment added Monday would add a certified public accountant to the board, an addition that supporters said would strengthen oversight of the stadium and its operations.

"This legislation seeks to make sure that the people can have faith that their stadium, the people's stadium, is truly that and it's not meant to be a gift for folks that are friends and family of certain individuals," said bill author Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth.

The debate came a day after the Star Tribune revealed that former MSFA chair Michele Kelm-Helgen had been among the first allowed to purchase premiere seats at the new stadium, and that friends and associates has seats nearby. The paper referred to the arrangement as line-jumping and said similar seats were offered to long-time Metrodome ticket holders, which the Star Tribune said Kelm-Helgen was not.

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"This is actually an investment," Anderson said of the ticket arrangement, noting that premiere individual seat tickets required purchase of so-called "stadium builder licenses," that can be held for decades and available to sell on a secondary market.

"So really, it's like insider trading you're talking about here. These have value and when you jump in front of the line of season ticket holders, I think that's really unfair," Anderson said.

Kelm-Helgen released a statement acknowledging she had participated in the initial sales, as stadium seat marketing firm, Van Wagner was preparing for wider sales. "While I had viewed this as being a helpful part of the sales process, I must say again I certainly regret I did not think more about public perception and therefore the impact of my actions," Kelm-Helgen said in the statement. "I have learned so much in this process and I certainly apologize for for my mistakes."

Discussion of the stadium measure on the House floor featured acrimonious debate about the nature of the reforms.

"I think this is wrong. It goes too far," said Rep. Tina Liebling, a Democrat from Rochester, who tried to remove language in the bill that said MSFA employees "may not engage in partisan political activities." Liebling moved to strike the language, then withdrew her amendment, only to have Republicans bring the amendment back and force a roll call vote on the change — which failed by nearly 100 votes.

Anderson said she thought the political ties of the MSFA members and its staff were part of what went wrong at the stadium.

"The things that happened at the stadium kind of bother us all, but I think we're going a little too far and a little too fast," Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said, offering an alternate version of the bill that would have adopted the changes listed in the Legislative Auditor's report. He said he also wanted time to allow the auditor to offer further changes. The House turned down his plan 34-95.

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, was among the "no" votes on the overall measure. He said people were rightly upset about how the stadium was run. But he was also critical of a provision that could turn the MSFA suites back to the Minnesota Vikings, and to allow legislative leaders to appoint most of the stadium board. "I'm not sure they were looking for the giveaways to the Vikings here," Davnie said of taxpayers who put nearly $500 million into the $1.1 billion building. "I'm not sure they were looking for the political plums this give the caucus leaders."

The House bill also now includes a provision asking the Office of the Legislative Auditor to review operations at Target Field, Target Center, Xcel Energy Center and CHS Field to look for similar potential conflicts or transgressions. They were financed at least in part with taxpayer subsidies.

The Senate is considering a similar measure.