A Minnesota Senate committee narrowly approved a public subsidy on Friday to help the Vikings build a new football stadium, reviving the team's struggling effort just hours after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell visited the state Capitol to jumpstart what had been a stalled stadium debate.
The Senate's Local Government and Elections Committee passed the bill on an 8-6 vote after a hearing that stretched nearly four hours. While the stadium bill still faces a long haul in the waning days of Minnesota's legislative session, the committee's vote gave the $975 million stadium proposal new life four days after a companion bill's defeat in a House committee sparked near panic among supporters.
"We're very pleased with the progress and that the bill moved forward," Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president for stadium development, said after the Senate committee vote. "It's been an up and down week, touch and go."
The setback in the House had prompted the visit Friday by Goodell. He and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II met Friday morning with Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders to stress the urgency of resolving the Vikings' decadelong pursuit of a replacement for the Metrodome.
Though the Vikings will play next season in the dome, their lease there has expired. That has raised fears the franchise could get snatched by Los Angeles or another city seeking its own football team - a prospect Goodell did not exactly squelch.
"They were here basically to say, `This is it folks,"' Dayton said after the meeting.
A simmering movement to put a franchise in Los Angeles came up in the discussion at the prompting of lawmakers, Dayton said. Sen. Julie Rosen, a Republican sponsoring the stadium bill, said legislative leaders heard that Los Angeles is an option, even if there was no explicit threat from the NFL.
"There is no ultimatum, but we did clearly talk about LA. We did clearly talk about that is an open market," Rosen said. "I do believe there is a feeling in some legislators and even in some folks throughout the state that they would never leave. So it was good to hear from the NFL, and from a very prominent owner, that they do have the right to move or be sold."
Vikings officials, including owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, were not present at the meeting. Afterward, most who were in the room said the need to act is urgent.
"There were no implied threats or any threats at all," Goodell said. "What we talked about is the importance of creating a solution here that works for the team, that works for the community. This isn't a new issue. It's been discussed here for several years. I think the legislative leaders and the governor understand the time is now."
Dayton has pushed for a stadium deal for months, saying the state is at risk of losing the team just as it did the Lakers long ago.
Moving the team is not permissible under league rules this year, but there's always 2013. The Vikings have been contacted before by two separate groups trying to lure a team and build a stadium in Los Angeles but have said, for now, they're not interested in selling.
Under the bill approved by the Senate committee, the Vikings would pay $427 million of the construction costs for the new stadium, which would be built on the Metrodome site in downtown Minneapolis. City and state taxpayers would be on the hook for the other $548 million, or 56 percent of the total cost.
Dayton said the state leaders didn't ask league officials to enhance the private contribution in the financing package. He said the NFL delegation ran through a league loan program that could give the team access to up to $200 million, but it has long been believed franchise owners had figured that money into their calculations.
The closeness of the Senate committee's vote demonstrated concerns still held by a number of lawmakers, with some senators raising opposition to an expansion of gambling that's part of the proposal's funding package. Some also raised the larger issue of providing a public subsidy to benefit a wealthy football team owner.
"I think some of us are just trying to represent the good wishes of many Minnesotans," said Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain, who voted against the bill.
The Senate bill heads next to another committee of that chamber. Lawmakers are hoping to wrap up their session before the end of April.
Senate panel revives Vikings stadium bill
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