NEW ULM Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Nelson) and Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) talked Vikings stadium bill, taxes bill and other legislative loose ends Friday at the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce's Hot Topics event in New Ulm.
The $975 million final version of the Vikings stadium bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature very early Friday morning ended up dividing prominent local politicians along Minnesota House and Senate lines: Torkelson and Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter) both voted in favor of the bill, while Dahms and Sen. Mike Parry (R-Waseca) voted against the bill.
Dahms and Torkelson both said they had strong doubts that the stadium bill's current method of funding the state's $348 million portion of the stadium would be sufficiently covered through the expansion of electronic pull tabs and bingo. They also doubted that the backup funding mechanism of a 10 percent tax on luxury seats and a sports-themed scratch-off ticket, which kick in if pull tabs don't sufficiently cover the state's cost, would cover the state obligation either. They said they highly doubted the state could fund its portion over the years without eventually dipping into taxpayer money like the state general fund.
Both said they would have strongly preferred a briefly introduced plan of using state bonding to cover the infrastructure and underground portions of the stadium, while simultaneously turning to user fees to cover other expenses like the roof.
However, Dahms and Torkelson had different reasons for how they voted on the stadium bill and why they supported bonding for portions of the stadium despite prior pledges not to use any general funds on the stadium.
Torkelson said he preferred bonding because the state could have gotten a favorable interest rate. He also said using bonding for only the infrastructure fit the role the state should be filling, of only developing land so a private entity could then build on it. He said he ultimately voted "yes" on the final stadium bill because he felt it was still good enough and the Vikings stadium needed to be resolved.
Dahms said he was interested in bonding because it was something the state could control and set specifically how much it would pay. He said his concern is that the current bill could dip into general fund money in a less controllable way and possible in a more expensive amount than bonding.
He said that he voted against the bill because of concerns with the funding method. However, he said opposition to expanding gambling in the state was ultimately more significant in his decision.
"[Now] we can have little casinos just about anywhere around the state. I don't feel this is the direction we should be going as a state," said Dahms.
Both said they expect that funding for the Viking stadium will return to the Minnesota Legislature for further tinkering in the coming years.
Despite their misgivings, both spent a good deal of time praising the success and hard work of the main drivers of the bill, including Gov. Mark Dayton. They were particularly pleased that the Vikings portion of contribution to the stadium was raised $50 million.
"I'll give [Dayton] credit," said Dahms, "He said told the Vikings that the increased contribution was 'take it or leave it,' even though he really wanted the bill."
The other major topic of questions from the audience was on what could be done to create progress on Highway 14. Dahms and Torkelson said it was a difficult issue that wasn't going to have an easy solution. Dahms mentioned the hearing he hosted this year with New Ulm and Mankato representatives on Highway 14. They both suggested the best method for getting anything accomplished was constant and intense lobbying pressure from residents along Highway 14.
"The Vikings bill got passed because of the immense pressure behind it. We need to do something like that for Highway 14," said Torkelson.
Overall, both said they felt pleased with how this year's session went and felt that enough good work had been done. Neither had any specific areas of focus for next year's legislative session if they are reelected, though they each had areas they would like to look into. Torkelson said he was interested in doing something to resolve the difficulty schools in towns with private schools face in trying to pass needed levy increases. Dahms said he wanted to focus on making sure the bills they passed aren't weighted down by regulation that wasn't part of the original bill.
Going forward, Dahms and Torkelson are now officially gearing up for their reelection campaigns. They have both started up their websites for this year. They both have an endorsing convention next Tuesday at the Cottonwood Community Center at 7 p.m. in Cottonwood.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.