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No room to punt for Minn. on Vikings stadium

- Associated Press - Sunday, May 6, 2012

ST. PAUL, MINN. (AP) - Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers could have been speaking for many of his fellow lawmakers when he struggled to describe his position on a $1 billion Vikings stadium bill before a vote that could be critical to the team's future in the state.

"I won't vote for it, but I want to see it pass," the Republican said in an interview late last week on sports radio.

With votes scheduled Monday on a huge public payout, 200 lawmakers are under pressure from plenty of people who oppose the project _ but worry they will be blamed if it fails. A defeat this week, while not fatal, would accelerate fears that the state could lose its most beloved team.

After years of trying, stadium supporters know better than to predict the outcome.

"I think it's within striking distance," Lester Bagley, the team's chief stadium lobbyist, said on Friday.

The Vikings haven't openly threatened to leave Minnesota, and are committed to playing in the 30-year-old Metrodome this season.

But stadium boosters, led by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, say punting on the proposal could set up a nightmare three-peat for Minnesota sports fanatics. After all, the state lost the NBA's Lakers to Los Angeles in 1960 and the NHL's North Stars to Dallas in 1993.

"Nobody wants the Vikings to leave the state of Minnesota. Nobody wants that to happen," said Rep. Sarah Anderson, a suburban Minneapolis Republican who is undecided how she'll vote on Monday. "It's just a matter of figuring out whether this package will work and is a good deal for our taxpayers."

Stadium support doesn't break down neatly _ it has Democratic and Republican backers, but also plenty of opponents in both parties.

Fiscally conservative Republicans loathe the potential handout, but the party's business wing wants to preserve a valuable asset in the city's core. Democrats _ especially the party's labor base _ crave the thousands of hardhat jobs that would come with a new stadium.

The Vikings would have to kick in $427 million _ which isn't enough for some lawmakers.

"I'm concerned about whether the owner is footing enough of the bill," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, the Senate's deputy Republican leader. "I'm really concerned that what we've got is a minority partner in this project dictating the terms, wagging the dog if you will."

Ortman said she thinks fears about the team's possible departure have been overhyped, but signs of pressure are everywhere.

Vikings fans have roamed the Capitol for days, adorned with face paint, horned helmets and purple-and-gold superhero costumes. Schoolchildren on field trips have shown up to the Capitol in jerseys. And a few die-hards presided over a mock tailgate outside of the building.

The team even trotted out star running back Adrian Peterson late last month to glad-hand lawmakers.

Some would-be opponents are tripped up by their fandom. Rep. Chris Swedzinksi, a Republican from rural southwestern Minnesota and a likely yes vote, said some of his most hard-right constituents want the stadium. He called it "a beast all on its own."

"I've got folks that I know are active in the tea party that have said, you know, I'm going to suspend my rational thought right now, Chris," Swedzinski said. "I know what I believe and I know where this country's headed if we continue down this path _ but don't lose the Vikings."

Rep. Kerry Gauthier, a Duluth Democrat, said he was won over even before hundreds of construction workers lobbied at the Capitol during a critical moment last week.

"I think it's good for Minnesota all the way around," said Gauthier. "Not only do we put people down here to work, but that prevents people from having to leave town to go to work in my city, so it keeps our guys and women working."

Not all Democrats are swayed by the job-creation argument. Rep. Susan Allen, a Minneapolis Democrat, said she heard from labor lobbyists who told her the project would bring at least 200 jobs to her cash-poor south Minneapolis district, mere blocks from the stadium. But she and other Democrats look at the state's proposed $400 million share and see money that's not feeding the hungry, housing the homeless or caring for the sick.

"In our district, we have over half the children living poverty, the unmet needs are so great," said Allen, who plans to vote no. "I wouldn't be able to defend my vote in light of all those circumstances."

Other lawmakers fret over what they see as shaky financing, saying the state overestimates the tax revenue it will bring in by expanding legal gambling. And some on both sides of the aisle object to increased gambling on moral grounds, no matter the money.

Stadium supporters say even if the bill isn't perfect, it's time to settle the issue.

"At this time, in this political climate, it's probably the best we can do," said Rep. Paul Marquart, a Democrat from northwestern Minnesota. "We're fourth and inches. Let's push this thing across the goal line."

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Associated Press reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.

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