By BRIAN BAKST and PATRICK CONDON, Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Vikings fans decked out in purple and gold roamed Minnesota's Capitol on Saturday hoping to see the state House vote on a $1 billion stadium bill, but it was delayed even as the planned end of the legislative session drew closer and despite an urgent plea from stadium supporter Gov. Mark Dayton.
"This is our chance," the Democratic governor said at an afternoon news conference with House and Senate Democratic leaders. Together they urged the Legislature's GOP leaders to get moving on the stadium bill, but Republicans who control the House decided the hoped-for debate and vote would not happen Saturday.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers said a House-Senate conference committee on tax policy would meet instead, stressing a consistent message from Republican leaders that the session's top priority should be tax relief for Minnesota businesses — not the stadium bill. If the stadium bill does get taken up by the House or Senate, the floor debates are likely to stretch many hours; bill supporters have expressed confidence about rounding up the 68 House votes and 34 Senate votes needed for passage, but the bill also faces pushback from opponents or skeptics who are likely to move to alter it substantially with amendments.
The political angling came about 60 hours before the Monday-at-midnight deadline the House and Senate GOP have set to adjourn the session for the year. Dayton, who has devoted many hours to talking up and lobbying for the state's proposed $400 million stadium subsidy, said lawmakers must act on the stadium before they leave St. Paul.
"This is our chance. This is Minnesota's chance to keep the Vikings in Minnesota," Dayton said. "If we don't act, or if we vote no, all bets are off."
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis Democrat and stadium supporter, tried to put the weight of the issue on Zellers. He pointed out that the three other legislative leaders besides Zellers are all on record supporting the stadium bill; Zellers has said he wouldn't reveal his vote before he casts it.
"At this stage of the game that is simply unacceptable," Thissen said.
Zellers declined again late Saturday to say when the stadium vote would take place or how he personally would vote. He called the demands by Dayton and Thissen "cheap politics," and said House Republicans still hoped to strike a deal that would allow for votes on the stadium, business tax cuts and a package of state borrowing for construction projects that are separate from the stadium project.
Despite the goal of adjourning by Monday, lawmakers do have the option of working into early May. Zellers said late Saturday that he still hoped to adjourn by Monday but didn't rule out working past that self-imposed deadline.
House and Senate Republicans planned to meet late Saturday to confer on their respective tax bills, which both make a centerpiece of reducing and ultimately eliminating a property tax that Minnesota directly levies on every business in the state.
Dayton and GOP leaders have met and talked a few times in recent days about an overall deal to end the session that could include a mix of GOP tax priorities, as well as state borrowing for a series of construction projects separate from the stadium project. But as of late Saturday afternoon, Dayton had no scheduled meetings with GOP legislative leaders.
The lack of movement on the stadium bill had Vikings fans who trekked to the State Capitol on a cold, rainy Saturday worried what might happen to their beloved franchise if the Legislature doesn't act this year.
"I'm worried if it's not built this session that it never will be, and the Vikings will move, and I'd die," said Benita Alleman, a 30-year-old school librarian from St. Paul. Alleman, a fan since childhood, said she loves the team despite its weak performance on the field last year — and the fact that her family can only afford to attend one game a year.
Marcus Mollins, a 36-year-old St. Paul resident who works for a lawn care company, called the Vikings "a hobby, a passion." He said he wasn't bothered by the thought of state tax dollars helping to quench the Vikings' demand to replace the 30-year-old Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.
Rooting for the team "gets us away from our regular lives," Mollins said. "It's what we do on Sundays. It's something to look forward to every week."