ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A key state senator said Thursday she wants a public vote on a proposed half-cent sales tax to help build a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, a new obstacle as the team tries to push the project to the finish line and plays out the final year of its lease at the Metrodome.
"It's important for the voters to have their say," said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, a Republican from Buffalo, Minn. She said she has supported referendums on sales tax increases in her own legislative district and wants to be consistent.
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Koch said she considers the Vikings a key state asset and sees the benefits to Ramsey County of being home to a stadium -- "but I just think a referendum is in order," she said.
A referendum likely could not be held until November 2012 -- long after the Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires.
As the top-ranked Republican in a Senate controlled by that party, Koch's pronouncement could hold considerable sway over a crop of conservative freshman new to stadium politics at the Capitol. Stadium supporters have predicted that Ramsey County voters would kill the sales tax proposal and scrap the entire stadium project.
"It would derail it," said county Commissioner Tony Bennett, a chief sponsor of the county's partnership with the Vikings to build the $1.1 billion, 65,000-seat stadium at a former Army munitions site in Arden Hills, a suburb north of St. Paul. He said voters are in no mood to approve tax increases for anything: "You float a tax increase for motherhood and apple pie right now and it'd fail."
The Vikings have been seeking a replacement to the Metrodome in Minneapolis for years, saying it's no longer a profitable venue and raising fears among fans that the team might leave Minnesota. The team and Ramsey County have been pushing state leaders to get behind the Arden Hills venture, and just hours before Koch's declaration Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley had publicly suggested that the team might be willing to boost its own contribution to the cost of building the stadium.
Bagley did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Koch's remarks. Supporters have been hoping to finalize details in order that Gov. Mark Dayton, a stadium supporter, could call a special session this fall for a legislative vote on the stadium, since it also includes state funding.
The plan originally floated by the team and Ramsey County had the team kicking in $407 million and the county raising $350 million through the sales tax. It also had the state contributing $300 million through new sales taxes on sports memorabilia, luxury seats and digital video recorders as well as naming rights, a Vikings-themed lotto game and an income-tax surcharge on NFL players.
Together, those three pots of money didn't quite raise enough to cover projected construction costs; Bagley's comments this week about the team's possible willingness to up its share suggested a final deal could be close.
Koch and GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers had refrained for months from discussing details of the stadium package even as Democrat Dayton and several Republican sponsors pushed the project forward.
The two lead Republican sponsors, Sen. Julie Rosen and Rep. Morrie Lanning, did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Koch's preference for a public vote. Dayton said earlier this week that he wouldn't oppose a referendum but didn't see one as a requirement, either.
Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who backs the stadium proposal, said he's so certain voters would kill the proposed sales tax that if state lawmakers attach a referendum requirement he would consider yanking the county's participation altogether.
"It doesn't make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a referendum that we know is going to fail," Ortega said.