Vikings find two unlikely stadium allies at state Capitol
ST. PAUL They're not the most animated speechmakers or ideologues. They don't live anywhere near the Twin Cities metropolitan area. And they're not even huge Minnesota Vikings fans. But when state Sen. Julie Rosen and Rep. Morrie Lanning, two wel...
They're not the most animated speechmakers or ideologues. They don't live anywhere near the Twin Cities metropolitan area. And they're not even huge Minnesota Vikings fans.
But when state Sen. Julie Rosen and Rep. Morrie Lanning, two well-respected outstate Republicans, decided at the beginning of the legislative session to carry a bill to finance a new Vikings stadium, they made themselves pivotal figures in a political drama that could decide whether Minnesotans will still have pro football.
"They're the most important people in this whole thing right now at the Capitol," said Ted Mondale, a former Democratic state senator and Gov. Mark Dayton's point man on getting a stadium deal done.
Mondale said even his stature in the stadium game isn't as large as that of Rosen and Lanning because they're the ones with membership in the Republican legislative majority -- and the primary burden of rallying support in a budget-crunch year when both Republicans and Democrats have plenty of reasons to oppose a pro sports facility with major taxpayer subsidies, and little more than a month of lawmaking left.
Still, Mondale, like many of their colleagues, said if anyone's up to the task, it's Rosen and Lanning. Their optimism that a plan can come to reality, he said, isn't fanciful.
"They're well-respected in their caucuses, they're experienced and they know how to get things done," Mondale said.
Mondale, who rarely shies away from media glare, stands in
contrast to Rosen and Lanning, who have carried the stadium plan not triumphantly as torchbearers, but humbly, as if it were a necessary business document holstered in a briefcase.
They've begun lining up co-sponsors, but it's been quiet, especially when compared with the volume of lawmakers opposed to the bill.
Neither Rosen nor Lanning has yet held a news conference on the matter, though they're aware of the media appetite for any morsel.
"Julie, it's Morrie," Lanning was overheard
more than a month ago in a phone conversation with Rosen. "Well, I don't know how they know, but they're asking about it. ... Yep. ... Well, just wanted to let you know."
It was a relatively insignificant tidbit -- a potential meeting between lawmakers and Vikings officials -- that had reporters stationed outside Lanning's office and calling him, but it underscored how the stadium can interrupt their already busy schedules. Rosen chairs the Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee and has sponsored controversial bills such as lifting a moratorium on coal-fired power plants; Lanning chairs the House State Government Finance Committee, where he was the lead on a contentious bill that would reduce by 15 percent the number of state government workers by 2015.
When details of their Vikings bill -- a rough framework saddled with a gaping hole because no deal has been reached on a stadium site -- leaked to the media a couple weeks ago, Lanning was annoyed, even though he acknowledged that secrets are hard to keep in politics.
Only to correct inaccuracies reported from the leak, he emphasized, did he release details of the plan himself.
The mayor of Moorhead for 22 years and the former dean of students at Concordia College in Moorhead, the 66-year-old father of two is soft-spoken, even subdued, but his colleagues say those qualities are tied to his greatest strengths.
"Level-headed, even-keeled, those words come to mind," said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who, like Lanning, is in his fifth term. "As a class member of mine, I've watched him build what I would call a broad base of support and respect in the party."
And outside the party.
"If all the Republicans were like him, I think we'd all get along a lot better," said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who previously chaired Lanning's State Government Finance Committee. "He likes to do things that are right and fair. He's a lot more cooperative with his leadership than I was with mine."
Still, Kahn said she doubts she would support a stadium plan that involves taxpayer money -- likely a series of sales taxes levied at both the county and state levels. "I don't see how I could do that, especially now," she said.
Like many Democrats, Kahn said raising taxes to pay for a pro sports team sends the wrong message when programs are likely to be cut -- in both parties' plans -- as lawmakers grapple with a projected $5 billion two-year budget hole.
Similarly, some Republicans, elected with a mandate to keep taxes low, have made their opposition clear.
"Not if tax dollars are involved," said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, summing up his opposition.
"I guess I'm a glutton for punishment," Lanning shrugged, jokingly, last week when asked why he took on the stadium plan. In a nutshell, he said, someone had to.
"I believe the Vikings may not be here if Minnesota doesn't do anything," he said. "I don't believe the Wilf family will move the team, but they could sell it and the new owner could move. I wish there were a better time to consider this, but the reality is the lease (on the Metrodome) is going to expire at the end of the season. ... It's an issue that needs to get resolved."
Lanning and Rosen both have experience in stadium issues. Both were involved in a failed Vikings plan at the end of last year's session, and both were important players in negotiations over the bill that allowed the Minnesota Twins' new Target Field to be financed with a combination of team, local and state dollars that seems to have provided a template for the Vikings bill.
"That experience was very helpful," Lanning said. "I learned what it takes to shepherd something like this, this controversial."
Rosen's motivations are similar.
"This truly is about both the stadium and the economic needs of the state," she said. "And this year, it really has to get done. It's got nothing to do with me being a fan. I mean, I love football, but I was born and raised a Bronco girl."
A Denver native who now lives in Fairmont, Rosen worked as an agronomist before deciding to stay home with her three children. Like Lanning, she was elected in 2002. And like Lanning, the 53-year-old former competitive swimmer carries respect from colleagues in both parties.
"She's a natural," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, also a key figure in bringing the Twins bill to fruition. "It's like the Twins stadium, she wants to be part of the discussion. Both of them (Rosen and Lanning) are capable of building bipartisan support, and that's what you need in a deal like this.
"But I have a hard time seeing a path to get this done, and I don't envy them."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.