Latest Vikings stadium debate chapter: How to save on debt

Minnesota Vikings kicker Greg Joseph celebrates with teammates
Minnesota Vikings kicker Greg Joseph celebrates with teammates after kicking a 29-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Minneapolis. The Vikings won 34-31.
Bruce Kluckhohn | AP

Just like old times, there’s a stadium debate shaping up at Minnesota’s Capitol. 

Only this time, it’s not about a new sports venue. The discussion is about how to save money on one that’s already built — U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Minnesota Vikings play.

That stadium bill was a huge political lift when in 2012 — after many years of trying — the Vikings succeeded in getting the Legislature to sign off on a roughly $1 billion stadium construction plan. The eventual cost was higher, although the team was on the hook for anything above the initial budget.

Under the law, about half of the stadium was to be publicly financed – $348 million from the state and $150 million from the city of Minneapolis. The state sold bonds to help get the stadium built. Those 30-year bonds reach a point next year where the state could try to pay the debt early without penalty.

There is an appetite and the money to do that.

A variety of revenue sources were used to back up the state's share, with the main piece being electronic pull tabs. They were slow to get off the ground but are now bringing in considerably more than needed to pay annual debt. In fact, a stadium reserve account is bulging.

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There’s more than 200 million dollars in the account now. The balance is expected to approach 600 million within a few years. And that’s what key lawmakers want to use for advance payments.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen, a chief architect of the 2012 stadium bill, is sponsoring a bill to pay the debt early.

“We need to make sure that that money is not grabbed out of the stadium reserve fund. It's not for anything but the stadium – to pay it off,” said Rosen, R-Vernon Center. “Once we get it paid off, everybody can breathe. Then we can look at all sorts of other issues; what to do with the excess money.”

The bills being pushed by Rosen and House State Government Finance Chair Mike Nelson would pay off the bonds by 2027 – about 16 years ahead of schedule. And that translates into savings from avoided interest costs.

Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, compares it to a home refinancing to reduce the years on a mortgage.

“It would save us money for the rest of our daily use in our household by not having that monthly mortgage payment that we'd have to pay,” he said.

Finance officials say it would free up tens of millions of dollars per year or hundreds of millions over the term of the original bond structure.

The Department of Minnesota Management and Budget is working with the lawmakers but hasn’t taken an official position. It might have the authority to do this without legislation, but Rosen said passing a bill would make the intent clearer, spell out a process and give the Legislature buy-in.

The Twins’ stadium got similar treatment. The baseball team’s public financing partner, Hennepin County, sped up debt repayment in hopes of considerable interest cost savings.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean smooth sailing for the Vikings stadium debt plan.

The e-pull tabs generate charitable tax revenue that goes into the stadium fund. There are organizations that say the state should consider cutting those tax rates if the games are producing more money than needed. They have backers at the Capitol who could push for that instead of, or in combination with, early payoff.

“I wonder if there is the capacity within this proposal to be able to provide some more immediate relief to charitable gaming organizations rather than waiting five years for this to fully vest,” said Rep. Kristin Bahner, DFL-Maple Grove, during a hearing on the bill last week. “I know that it has been challenging in the last few years for many of those organizations with growing operating expenses to meet their obligations, and still have money left over for the mission to do the good work they do for our communities.”

Like Rosen, Nelson said he would prefer to get the debt satisfied before competition or changes to the e-pull tab revenue stream commence.

When the stadium bill was passed, lawmakers put in a “blink-on” insurance policy if the gambling proceeds didn’t cover the needed costs. They authorized a sports-themed lottery game and a suite tax to make up for any shortfalls. Those would be repealed once the stadium debt is gone.

There’s another House hearing on the bill set for Tuesday. Rosen said there are also talks happening behind the scenes. She is retiring after this year. That gives her extra incentive to tie up this loose end on one of her signature bills. The state’s considerable budget surplus — more than $9 billion — also means legislators aren’t prowling special accounts for money to cover other expenses.

“We have a window here of opportunity,” Rosen said in an interview last week. “And we need to be responsible with that.”