The case for a Vikings stadium discussion

The Minnesota Legislature begins its 2010 session today (MPR’s Midday is originating its entire show from the Capitol today) and the chief topic is how to to close the state’s budget deficit.

But the slightly smaller gorilla in the room is a stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. Still, it has no significant chance of coming up for discussion this year.

Gov. Pawlenty tried to put the discussion in play yesterday during his appearance on MPR’s Midday when he offered several possible ways to raise some revenue for the Vikings, whose lease at the Metrodome expires at the end of next season.

Sooner or later, the issue has to come up for discussion. The question is: Should it be sooner? Or later?

Minnesota politicians specialize in waiting until the last minute to solve problems and make decisions, and from the pre-session talk, they’re likely to put off a stadium discussion until next year. Part of that is a hope something will change between now and then. But all of the economic reports say nothing will likely change.

“As soon as the topic comes up, it sucks the air out of the room,” my colleague, Kerri Miller, a former Capitol reporter, said to me this morning while we were arguing about whether the issue should be discussed this session.

She’s probably right; legislating is hard, especially in an election year.

Why should the topic come up? Two reasons. One, is someone — somewhere — has to have a long-range vision for Minnesota. What exactly do you want Minnesota to look like in five years? And, once we settle on that, how do we get there? Is an NFL team part of that vision? What’s the dropout rate in Minnesota in 2015 (A proposal is to increase the age at which we let kids drop out)? What industry — bioscience, for example — do you think Minnesota should try to attract as a dominant industry?

This is not an entirely foreign concept at the Capitol. In one of the few bipartisan efforts on major legislation, lawmakers and the governor set benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gasses in the state by 2015. They didn’t wait until 2014 to do it; they did it in 2007.

Reason two: If you’re not talking about solutions, you don’t generally find them. There are, of course, the obvious and longstanding opinions on whether the state should have any role in keeping an NFL team in Minnesota. “Why should taxpayers have to pay to have an NFL team?” is one. The answer is simple: Whether we like it or not, that’s the way it is. If someone else is willing to build them a stadium, NFL teams move. Whatever Minnesota decides, it has to understand the reality of sports economics.

It’s true that the Legislature has big issues that need to be discussed that may have more priority than deciding the fate of the Minnesota Vikings. But legislators in the House today filed 337 more bills for consideration, most of which are far less significant, that also get to the issue of how the state spends its money: A pedestrian walkway at Minnetonka Beach, an airport hangar for Thief River Falls, a campground in Two Harbors, and renovation of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis among them.

Someone must think a pedestrian walkway, an airport hangar, a campground, and an orchestra are part of a vision and are prepared to discuss it in this session. Why not add the Vikings’ stadium to the debate?

“People need jobs in this state; it’s an important part of what’s going on in the economy,” House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said last month. “However, public money going towards this is a very difficult sell in a budget crisis.”

She’s right. It will be. But talking about it and considering solutions doesn’t preclude saying “no” to any of them. Otherwise, the state is dealing with a problem by ignoring it. How’s that strategy worked out in the past?