- Associated Press - Monday, May 7, 2012

ST. PAUL, MINN. (AP) - Supporters of a new Vikings stadium pleaded for votes in the Minnesota House on Monday, calling it their “one chance” to preserve the team’s future in the state.

The GOP-controlled chamber began debating a bill for $975 million stadium shortly before purple-clad fans rallied in the Capitol with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Vikings players, including quarterback Christian Ponder. The debate was expected to stretch into the evening, possibly past midnight.

The Vikings have pushed for a new stadium for more than a decade, but their efforts went nowhere until their lease at the Metrodome expired. Rep. Morrie Lanning, the bill’s sponsor, said the team likely would leave the state if the legislation fails.

“Whatever you think of this bill, this is our one chance,” said Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove. “This bill works, it’s been fine-tuned and it will build a stadium.”

The House vote will serve as the first test for a proposal that must also clear the Senate and likely would face House-Senate negotiations before another round of votes.

The plan would have the Vikings cover about $427 million of the construction costs, or about 44 percent. The state would pay $398 million, with the money coming from an expansion of gambling. The city of Minneapolis would kick in $150 million by redirecting an existing hospitality tax.

But in an early sign of the shape of the debate, the House quickly amended the bill to cut more than $100 million from the state’s share and require the team to put in more money.

The Vikings will play the upcoming season at the Metrodome, but are free to leave after that. The team hasn’t threatened to move, but fans fear they could relocate to Los Angeles or another city seeking its own football team.

“If they don’t do it now, they’re out in L.A. by next year, or someplace else,” said J.P. Charney, 24, of Minnetonka, who came to the Capitol with his brother to support a new stadium.

Dayton made the stadium issue his top priority last fall, urging lawmakers to act to avoid losing a valuable asset. Dayton has also touted the thousands of jobs that stadium construction would bring.

The governor has also acted as lead cheerleader for the project, joining in chants of “Build it!” in a raucous rotunda rally with construction workers before the House debate Monday.

“Minnesota’s a can-do state,” he told the crowd. “We’ve been successful because we say, `Yes we’re going to move ahead. Yes, we’re going to create more jobs. Yes, we’re going to do the things we want to do to remain vital and strong.’”

Supporters weren’t ready to predict passage. The legislation appeared all but dead until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell visited in April, raising pressure on lawmakers to act. After that, the bill limped through several committees.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said stadium supporters picked up momentum after fans and construction workers mobilized to support the project over the weekend. Dayton appeared at rallies at the Mall of America on Saturday and a Minneapolis sports bar on Sunday.

“I feel that the numbers are close and the numbers are moving in our direction,” said Rybak, who has been lobbying legislators for the project.

One Democrat, Rep. Ryan Winkler, announced Sunday he was changing his “no” vote to “yes” because he saw the stadium as the only job-producing project likely to come out of the Legislature this session.