How Minnesota government kept its Amazon bid secret

Minnesota has a well-deserved reputation for transparent government but it’s not beyond being sneaky and keeping its citizens in the dark when it comes to spending their money for private business.

The latest example is reported by Public Record Media which says state officials concealed their bid for Amazon’s second headquarters by having the bid submitted by a private business group instead.

Greater MSP, a business promotion group, is refusing to make the bid public, while state officials claim they can’t make it public because they don’t have it.

PRM says state data practices laws apply to Greater MSP because they extend to vendors doing business with the government. It receives funding — the group calls them “donations” from several public governments.

The investigative journalists note that this isn’t the first time a non-government group shielded secret deals from public inspection.

The State of Minnesota’s Amazon bid is not the only high-profile economic development proposal to be subject to secrecy measures. Four years ago, the state submitted its bid for hosting Super Bowl LII – a bid that ultimately secured the 2018 event for U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

In the case of the Super Bowl bid — as opposed to the recent Amazon proposal — the information was explicitly classified as “not public” by Minnesota law. The Data Practices Act permits “terms of rentals” for publicly operated convention centers like U.S. Bank Stadium to be kept from public access until after an event has been held. In July of 2014, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) told PRM that it would provide access to the Super Bowl bid document only “after the 2018 Super Bowl occurs.”

In June of 2014, a list of terms required of the state by the National Football League was published after it was leaked to the Star Tribune newspaper. The 153-page document showed that the NFL – among other things — wanted free police escorts for team owners, 35,000 free parking spaces, presidential suites at no cost in high-end hotels, free billboards across the Twin Cities, and even a requirement for NFL-preferred ATMs at the stadium.

An official on Minnesota’s Super Bowl host committee told the Star Tribune that the group had agreed to a majority of the conditions, but declined to elaborate.

The NFL also asked that neither the league, its affiliates, nor its member clubs “be subject to any state, county, city or other local taxes, including income, gross receipt, franchise, payroll, sales, use, admission, or occupancy taxes” as a result of holding the Super Bowl in the city.

The board chair of Greater MSP heads US Bank, and its members include officers from Health Partners, Cargill, Target, Ecolab, and Medtronic.

  • Mike

    Continuing on the football theme, remember back in 2012 when Dayton and the legislature were allegedly opposed to giving Zygi Wilf a big bunch of taxpayer money for a new stadium? The next thing we knew, the convicted racketeer himself deigned to make a visit to flyover country. He must have flashed a lot of shiny baubles at our august representatives, because all of a sudden there was a bipartisan stadium deal involving $500 million (at least) in public money.

    I don’t recall much coverage around the details of Wilf’s pitch to them, but given how fast things changed, I bet those details were “interesting,” as we like to say in these parts.

    • I, for one, am getting tired hearing about the influence the NFL has over governments…

      • wjc

        No joke!

      • Rob

        Welcome to our plutocracy.

      • Mike

        Right, I’m sure the Russians are to blame anyway! Wicked, evil Russkies…. polluting not only our precious bodily fluids but our pristine political system.

        • I’ll show them soon enough!

          I’m playing in a hockey tourney in Russia at the beginning of April. Time to check Ivan into the boards!

          /It’s a no-check tourney though…

          • Mike

            Wow, that sounds fun. Where in Russia? Don’t miss the chance to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was there a number of years ago; they’re both world-class cities full of fascinating things to see.

          • It’s in St. Petersburg. we passed on Moscow for this trip.

            We are going to Iceland > Norway > Estonia > Russia as part of the International Air Traffic Controllers hockey tourney. i play for MSP and New York.

            🙂

          • We should organize a NewsCut pickup game

      • Ben Chorn

        Why limit it to the NFL? In most states the highest paid public employee is a college football coach.

    • I don’t remember the chronology of events that way at all. As I recall, what caused the “panic” that made everyone caved was the sighting of Zygi’s plane in San diego, which is nowhere near Los Angeles, but it allowed people to say “see? he’s going to move his team to Los Angeles if we don’t give him money.”

      Dayton wasn’t opposed to a new stadium (and the legislature never had a vote on it until there was a bill), but he was opposed to general fund money being used. He reneged on that deal but that was AFTER the bill was already signed and the pulltab money didn’t materialize. Even then, as I recall, he went after smokers for the dough.

      Zygi did fly in for the big meeting at the Capitol in 2011 but I believe the Republican authors of the bill — Rosen, Magnus, Lanning — already had a bill in the hopper.

      The big motivation wasn’t so much Zygi as it was the fact the Metrodome lease was expiring that year.

      • Mike

        I remember there being tremendous skepticism that the pulltab funding scheme would work, so I think one can plausibly argue that it was a ruse on the part of Dayton and the legislature just to get the bill passed.

        I also recall that there was some sort of bill circulating in the legislature before Wilf’s visit. Wasn’t the first vote unsuccessful? But everything seemed to change quickly after the clouds parted and his private jet landed here on our benighted tundra – perhaps with grab bags of goodies for our representatives.

        • The stadium bill was always going to be approved. No politician was ever going to let the Vikings go to Los Angeles. Also, Wilf was here almost every game day.

          From Legislative reference library:

          2011: On February 10th, The Minnesota Vikings send a letter to the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners expressing their interest in exploring the possibility of building a stadium in Arden Hills. On that same date, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission votes to replace the collapsed Metrodome roof. Most of the cost is covered by insurance. On February 14th, several members of the Ramsey County legislative delegation compose a letter to the Ramsey County Commissioners encouraging them to vote against the Arden Hills stadium plan. The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners pass a resolution the next day to pursue it. In early May, Conventions Sports and Leisure (CSL) International, a consulting agency for sports businesses, releases a couple of charts that show projected stadium related debt service compared to tax collections. That same month, Hennepin County officials announce they are not interested in partnering with the Vikings to build a stadium. On May 9th, Minneapolis officials unveil their $895 million stadium plan. The next day the Ramsey County/Minnesota Vikings Principles of Agreement for the Development of a New Multi-Purpose Stadium is announced. The Vikings deal with Ramsey County to build a retractable roof stadium in Arden Hills is projected to cost over $1 billion. Potential project cost comparisons between the two sites were compiled by the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. In late May, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman proposes A Statewide Solution to fund a new stadium. It includes a proposal to close Target Center and move the basketball teams to the Xcel Energy Center. On July 6, the St. Paul City Council passes a resolution opposing the implementation of a Ramsey County sales tax to help fund a new stadium. On October 11, the Ramsey County Charter Commission decides not to let the county residents vote on the proposed 1/2 cent sales tax increase to help fund the Arden Hills stadium. The next day the Metropolitan Council and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission release their Stadium Proposal Risk Analysis report. On October 17th, Governor Mark Dayton announces his intention to call a special session before Thanksgiving to address the stadium issue. On October 27, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson release financing plans for the Linden Avenue Site, the Farmers Market Site, and the Downtown East (Metrodome) Site. In early November, there is talk of a lease extension clause in the Vikings contract that states that if the dome is damaged and they aren’t able to play the entire season there, they are obligated to extend their lease by a year. There is speculation that the collapse of the dome’s roof during the 2010 snowstorm could trigger the clause. A pre-Thanksgiving special session is not called.

          2012: Governor Mark Dayton requests that any stadium proposals be submitted by January 12. Ramsey County (Arden Hills), Minneapolis (Downtown East/Metrodome site), and Shakopee are among the ten proposals submitted. On March 1, the Downtown East Stadium Finance Plan, and Overview of Stadium Development and Operating Terms Minneapolis Downtown East Site are released. Several stadium related House Files and Senate Files are introduced and heard in 2011-2012. HF 2810/SF 2391 has the most hearings in 2012. On April 23, the House Ways and Means Committee amends the stadium language from HF 2810 into HF 1485. On May 7, 2012, both the House and Senate pass bills that provide financing for a Vikings stadium on the Metrodome site in Minneapolis. The House passes HF 1485 and the Senate passes SF 2391. Differences in the two bills are resolved in the stadium conference committee on HF 2958. On May 9, 2012, the House gives final passage to HF 2958 (71 yes – 60 no). Senate final passage of HF 2958 occurs on the following day, May 10, 2012 (36 yes – 30 no). In addition to financing, the bill creates the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority and abolishes the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commisssion. A full description of the final stadium agreement is contained in a publication from the House Fiscal Analysis Department, Minnesota Vikings Stadium: A Summary of Actions by 2012 Legislature. On August 13, 2012, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority issues a Request for Proposals for the design and construction of a new stadium. A Preliminary Master Project Schedule is released on the same day. On September 28, 2012, an agreement for HKS Inc., a Dallas-based architectural and engineering firm, to design the stadium is announced.

          • Mike

            As I remember, there was no imminent threat of any move to Los Angeles. Not to say it couldn’t have happened at some point, but it was mostly scare mongering.

            Also, if politicians, newspaper editorialists, etc., are going to lecture us about our responsibilities as citizens (as they are so fond of doing), I expect them to show a modicum of it by not giving public money to billionaires for frivolous purposes like football. Foolish, I know, but it’s not an unfair expectation.

          • // but it was mostly scare mongering.

            The NFL has totally perfected the strategy to the point the owners don’t HAVE to make the threat. It’s entirely implied.

            We can argue, I suppose , over whether threat is real or not but unquestionably SOME team was going to move to Los Angeles — and, of course did.

            We have no way of knowing whether it was “mostly scare mongering” because politicians weren’t interested in taking the chance.

            // by not giving public money to billionaires for frivolous purposes like football.

            newspaper editorialists don’t give money ; they only have an opinion. I’ll remind you, though, that the owner of the most influential newspaper in Minnesota owns a sports team.

          • Mike

            >> I’ll remind you, though, that the owner of the most influential newspaper in Minnesota owns a sports team.

            Which is why they never met a taxpayer-funded stadium they didn’t like. No, they don’t give money, but they certainly help grease the wheels of public opinion so that it all becomes much more respectable, instead of deeply tawdry and corrupt.

  • Rob

    The Amazon bid and the Super Bowl “sweetheart” bid are textbook examples of why – according to survey findings reported just a few days ago – most Minnesotans don’t trust state government to do the right thing. There’s something rotten in Denmark.

    • Al

      Which is a damn shame, because 99.9 percent of state government employees (that is, the rest of us, really) take a big hit to our reputations when crap like this happens, regardless of our work ethic, integrity, or intelligence.

      • Rob

        I never blame or bad-mouth rank-and-file state employees for this kind of stuff. These skeezy practices are undoubtedly performed by and signed off by the people at the very top of the state government food pyramid.

      • Jack

        You could substitute almost anything in replace of “state government” and the statistic is probably about the same.

        Not saying this to belittle the comment – I’m the child of a now retired state employee and know the crap he went through because of a bad actor.

  • MikeB

    So they outsourced a public bid to a private group just to get around disclosure rules. This is the model we can expect from now on as it doesn’t matter to most voters. Not enough to change a vote that is.

    • Kassie

      Sort of, but even worse. If they would of outsourced it, then there would have been a contract and it would have all been public information. Instead they gave “donations,” which is not a thing, and skirted around that rule too. I imagine if someone brings this to court, they will win, but it will be too late to matter at that point.

      • MikeB

        If they went to court and won it would prevent future use of this tactic. Here’s hoping.

  • Kassie

    Yesterday I researched a retention schedule for a the data of an application we will be taking down. I’m figuring out how we will save the data in the application for the required time, where we will store it, and how so that is readable if anyone asks for it. No one will ever ask for it, but this is part of my job as a State Employee, to make sure things I touch follow the records availability and retention rules. Then the leadership does this and I wonder why the hell I’m spending any time doing this when they obviously don’t care about the rules. It is disheartening.

  • JoeInMidwest

    The NFL practices the perfect extortion technique. They grumble that their stadium is old, out of date, blah, blah, blah, and that they need a new one. Then they maneuver to indicate that they are planning to move the team. Naturally, the NFL commissioner is tasked with prodding the local government official to move$. Next thing you know, the money appears so the team doesn’t disappear. Of course, the teams don’t want to OWN the stadium, but lease it back on a long term annual basis. After 30 -40 less or perhaps less, because the teams don’t OWN their stadiums, then the team again makes maneuvers that they will move. Since the community usually owns the team, the community has to ultimately bend to the extortion. Once the new stadium is under construction, then the team is suddenly valued higher. In the case of the Vikings, its value went up about a billion dollars when the stadium is under construction. Then when the stadium is completed, the Vikings requires seat licenses to get that season ticket. So, the 1.1 billion US Bank Stadium had about $600 million invested by the Wilfs, then once the license fees were due, I estimated that they got about half that amount back. Not a bad deal: Grumble, get a new stadium that increases the value of the team by $1 billion, then, after the seat licenses are paid, the total investment to gain that one billion is close to about $250 million with the rest paid either by the citizens or those who pay for the seat license BEFORE being able buy a season ticket. Yes, we live in a society that guarantees that the truly wealthy have fixed the system so that they will maintain and increase their wealth. And the common Minnesotan? Well, the state of Minnesota will get you on the income taxes some plus the Hennepin county businesses will add 0.5% to your sales tax ON EVERY PURCHASE. Plus, you have to have cable to see many games, especially in baseball.