The stadium that ate the legislative session

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Stop, don’t go away! I know you’re sick of stadium stuff, but my intent is not to continue the stadium debate, really. This is about the debate, not an engagement in it. You know how sick you are of stadium stuff? So is everybody else, and it’s like it became the whole session. That’s the point.

When I heard capitol reporters interviewed, they said all they heard was stadium stadium stadium. Legislators said all they heard from constituents was stadium stadium stadium. It was the unending Sturm und Drang of people engaged in a desperate struggle against the obvious. It was obvious the stadium was going to be in Minneapolis, obvious it was going to be on the Dome site, obvious it was going to have a roof, obvious there would be taxes on tickets etc., and obvious the Vikings would have to pay a proportion similar to what the Twins paid.

I went looking for what I wrote during the stadium debate, partly in hopes I could find where I said those things are obvious, and no luck. Maybe I didn’t put it in those terms since I know better than to be completely certain about what has not yet come to pass, though I did find this bit:

We realistically won’t get an income tax increase through with Pawlenty still in office, but the Republican legislators who will have to explain the loss of the Vikings to their constituents might find suddenly they can make an exception to the no-tax philosophy.

As the Pawlenty reference might suggest, I wrote that in February 2010. Predicting Republicans will get over their taxophobia is not normally the safest prediction. Something else interesting I noticed when I re-read that — well, besides a two-year-old typo — was that someone reading that and nothing else before today didn’t miss much. I didn’t guess at Arden Hills offering a site, soccer becoming an issue, or the expansion of gambling. Otherwise, there haven’t been new arguments in two years. If someone really wants to re-argue the stadium, read that two-year old post. It’s pretty much all there. In fact, I started that post with:

Stadiums have become one of those issues that turns some of us into one-issue voters. “How nice, you ended poverty and cured cancer, but you voted for the stadium, so I’ll never vote for you again!!” OK, I made up that quote, but I’ve run into that sentiment enough to claim it’s less exaggerated than it might appear. I haven’t seen that same level of one-issue voting on the pro-stadium side — not a poll, just my observation.

This time was even more intense than the Twins stadium, which simply didn’t dominate a legislative session the same way. Maybe because it was only half the cost, maybe because the Dome is a decent football stadium but lousy for baseball, maybe because opponents were better organized, maybe because the pro-stadium campaign was lousy, or maybe because frustration built as we went though one sports facilities debate after another leading up to the most expensive. Opposition certainly seemed more intensely organized, which is my guess as to why support was organized more than these prior facilities, albeit only at the end (again, my perception).

I expect RT Rybak spoke for all the elected officials on both sides of the issue:

Q. You said you would rather have your toenails pulled out…

A. … than go back to the Legislature and talk about the Vikings stadium for another year? Exactly. I just needed you to know how much I didn’t want to do that.

Something else very interesting: the way the caucuses split.

I was going to write about the split votes in each caucus, but this blowup between John Kriesel and Mary Kiffmeyer is much more interesting. Indicative of what’s being said off-line between Republicans? I’m not privy to that, but when you take a collection of people elected on their refusal to ever compromise, then divide them on the biggest issue, I have a feeling this isn’t all there is. Yes, maybe the DFLers feel equally strongly and had harsh words inside the caucus meetings or in private. I don’t know that, but I do know they get elected by a base that thinks compromise is a necessity if not a virtue of representative democracy. At least, there haven’t been threats I’m aware of to retract DFL endorsements for voting the wrong way, like nearly happened to Rep. Dean Urdahl. DFLers have these discussions among ourselves of how many times an elected official can be wrong on big issues before it becomes a problem, and we don’t have a number — but the number sure isn’t one.

In fact, both parties in both houses split, but the DFL actually provided most of the votes, prompting both Mark Dayton and the Star Tribune editorial board to describe them as acting as the majority party. The Republicans didn’t want to be left out on their own for a potentially unpopular decision and wanted the DFL to provide half their caucuses as yes votes, which meant some DFLers had to take a tough vote. They actually ended up voting mostly for the bill, which might explain why most Republicans voted no. My speculation — not fact, just so I’m clear — is that Republicans also faced a tough vote in supporting it, but knew they would get the blame if it failed and the Vikings left. So they wanted it to pass despite their opposition (so Kurt Zellers really did speak for his caucus I guess) and the DFL votes meant they could vote no without risking the Vikings announcing a move to LA near election day. That’s how the DFL acted like the majority party: they took the politically risky vote for something they thought needed to pass, even if they preferred not to have their fingerprints on it.

To hazard a prediction, no elected official will lose over this. Some on the opposing side may try to remove them, but I expect the same result as the Twins stadium: no heads will roll, neither pro-stadium nor anti-stadium, with the caveat I’m more sure DFLers will survive than Republicans. Despite Urdahl’s close call, both parties’ grassroots are divided. There just isn’t the consensus around one position to support an intra-party challenge.

Now to the immediate future, and some hope these three points are the last I’ll feel a need to say that’s stadium-related:

First, and I do mean first, state money needs to be used to hire state residents and pay state suppliers. Likewise, Minneapolis money needs to go to city residents and suppliers. This is not a beneficial side effect of keeping the team. This was a huge point to stadium supporters, if not the only point to many. Fortunately, the governor is among those stadium supporters for whom the jobs are why we’re doing this (I doubt he wanted to run for reelection with the team having left on his watch, but he always spelled out this was about an economic stimulus during high unemployment, like the bonding bill) so I have some confidence the money will be spent where it’s supposed to, but no harm in keeping the heat on the new board running the project. It would be good if they know giving the work to some out of state crony is going to have consequences. I don’t care if the bids or wages are higher. The money has to stay here. That’s a primary reason for the project. Yes, I like watching the Vikings and skating around RollerDome, but I want my unemployed neighbors to get jobs.

Second, we go through this same painful dance every time a facility gets old. The need goes from renovations to replacement as the years pass, the urgency picks up, the threat of a team moving goes from a distant memory of prior teams moving to the current team’s owner visiting other cities, elected officials try to avoid dealing with it, the predictable pro and con arguments are made, the debate gets increasingly emotional, and finally a deal is made with every party seeing how close it is and making one extra demand until it barely passes. This time was the worst, but it was the same basic pattern with the Twins stadium, building Xcel to attract an NHL team, buying Target Center to keep the Timberwolves, and I think I recall the same fight about building the Dome. I’m too young to recall if there were big fights to build Met Center and Met Stadium, but I’m guessing there were. So how about we have one body responsible for sports facilities. Then at least they could not only oversee maintenance and funding, but plan ahead for what needs to get done first and put the plan together. That would also resolve the problem of existing facilities driving down prices charged to event promoters through price wars, especially the competition between Xcel Center and Target Center. Neither pays for itself, and the existence of the other is why.

Third, and this point is a nice minor point to finish with, partly thought of from an argument by stadium opponents who said they supported the Twins stadium because it gets used for 81 home games, while the Vikings just play 10 home games. Actually, the Dome is the much busier place, though you could be fooled by the way the Target Field plaza is used like a public park. While the Dome has something going on almost every day, Target Field is empty outside the Twins’ season. We also know the Wild want to host a Winter Classic (the game the NHL holds outdoors on New Year’s Day, which has become maybe the league’s biggest event) in Target Field. Since apparently Target Field could hold an ice rink, why not use it for that during the Winter? Build several rinks on the field for local hockey leagues, open it for public skating, and generally use it like a public park. Target Field could be a year-round facility, and more important, a public facility. The public paid a lot of the cost, so let us use it.