With Minneapolis back in the mix, gambling becomes hot topic

In the ongoing saga over where and how to build a Minnesota Vikings stadium, a local sales tax appears to be off the table, and leaders have turned their attention toward gambling revenue as way to fund a new stadium.  

Just five days after Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak unveiled three potential downtown sites for a stadium and a 0.35 percent city sales tax to subsidize its construction, Gov. Mark Dayton sent out a statement saying a sales tax was likely dead. He said there wasn’t enough support in the Legislature to exempt either Ramsey County or the city of Minneapolis from holding a referendum on a sales tax hike.

But that news didn’t nix Rybak’s proposal completely. He also introduced a plan that would capture revenue from a casino at Block E in downtown to fund a new home for the Vikings and a renovated Target Center.

Rybak’s Block E casino proposal is one of several ideas floating in the Legislature that would take gambling revenue to fund a stadium.

A recent Star Tribune poll of 807 Minnesotans showed that 56 percent of state residents do not support using public money for a Vikings stadium. But, if public money were to be used, the poll found that 81 percent support a lottery, 72 percent support adding slot machines to racetracks, 70 percent support using electronic pull tabs, and 60 percent support a Minneapolis casino.

A downtown casino has mixed support locally.

Council President Barb Johnson called it an “attractive option.”

Meg Tuthill (Ward 10), said she hasn’t decided whether she supports a casino or not, as she’s hearing from her constituents on both sides of the issue.  

Betsy Hodges (Ward 13) and state Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B), both strongly oppose a downtown casino.

Hornstein pointed to a study released in April by Baylor University economics professor Earl Grinols saying that 30 to 50 percent of gambling revenue comes from “problem and pathological” gamblers.

A downtown casino, Hornstein said, would have societal costs that would outweigh its revenue.

“We’re just aiding and abetting this kind of addiction that is really a disease that should be treated. We should be preventing and treating it, rather than promoting it,” said Hornstein, who chided the private sector for not stepping up to help fund a stadium.

Hodges said a casino would also break pacts made with Minnesota tribes.

“The spirit of the compact we have with the native peoples of Minnesota is that gambling is their purview,” Hodges said.

Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) said she supports a Block E casino, but only if the tax revenue is used for things besides a Vikings stadium.

Even though Rybak proposed the casino idea, he indicated he has his own reservations about it.

“I could support it if there’s a way that that project could also deliver some help to the Indian people who we represent,” Rybak said.

Rybak’s biggest argument in favor of Minneapolis stadium site rests in its potential for property tax relief in a city where residents are increasingly lashing out at their leaders for recent property tax increases.  

Along with financing a Vikings stadium, Rybak’s proposal would also provide for a $150 million Target Center renovation and relieve taxpayers of about $53 million in remaining debt on the city-owned arena. The city is scheduled to pay, on average, about $5.5 million annually through 2025 to pay off Target Center debt. That money comes from property taxes.

Dayton said in October that he hoped to call a special legislative session on Nov. 21 to work out a stadium plan, but that timetable may be in jeopardy as legislators in early November appeared to be far from finding a politically feasible deal.

Reach Nick Halter at nhalter@mnpubs.com.