Vikings: Odd time for Super Bowl tax fight

MINNEAPOLIS -- In May 2012, the Minnesota State Legislature approved a $975 million bill to make a new Vikings stadium the state's third publicly-financed sports venue in less than a decade and the fourth in less than two. At that point, a state that was once staunchly against spending public money on sports stadiums effectively gave up the ghost on the issue.

The issue was seemingly buried further last spring, when lawmakers reconvened to approve backup financing sources for the Vikings' new stadium amid reports that the specious original plan -- a scheme that involved charitable gambling revenues from electronic pulltab machines -- wasn't bringing in nearly enough money. The state pitched in to help the Vikings once again, with the prospect of putting a Super Bowl in the Vikings' new home as a major incentive behind making sure the stadium got built on time.

How strange it is, then, to see legislators fighting over tax breaks for the NFL just before the state's bid for Super Bowl LII is due on April 1. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota governor Mark Dayton admonished legislators last week for bickering about the idea of giving roughly $10 million in tax breaks for player salaries, tickets and Super Bowl events. "Life will go on if we can’t keep this out of the partisan politics,” Dayton said. “We’ll just have to let the opportunity go by.”

It's an election year, and the fight over the tax breaks might just be the dying breaths of opposition on the issue. Had the state put any of its three recent projects to a referendum -- the Vikings stadium, the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium or the Minnesota Twins' Target Field -- it's likely each would have been defeated by voters. But two of the stadiums are here, and another one is coming, with corporate executives finishing a bid to showcase a revamped downtown against Indianapolis and New Orleans, the other finalists for the 2018 game.

Though Minneapolis' two competitors have been strong Super Bowl hosts -- and New Orleans is pushing for the game as part of its tricentennial celebration -- recent history suggests the NFL would reward the Twin Cities for building the Vikings' new stadium. Three of the last four Super Bowls have been played in new stadiums, with Super Bowl L scheduled for the San Francisco 49ers' new home in 2016. The league has been pushing to spread Super Bowls around, and when its final decision comes down in May, Minneapolis seems like a good bet to be awarded its first Super Bowl in 26 years.

Indianapolis and New Orleans have already approved tax breaks for the NFL as part of their bids, and the bet here is that Minnesota will, too. The state has spent the better part of the past decade funneling public money to sports stadiums, and the prospect of major events like Super Bowls and Final Fours was a large piece of the pitch for the Vikings stadium. There's a valid and compelling argument to be made that governments can fund much more worthwhile enterprises than for-profit entertainment businesses, but it's a bit difficult to make that argument after shelling out more than $500 million of taxpayer money for such businesses in less than a decade -- especially when the state just got done handing tax breaks back to its citizens a year after a tax hike created a $1.2 billion budget surplus. It's also reasonable to question how real and long-lasting the economic impact of a Super Bowl is, but the idea of that same event was one of the plums of the new stadium when it was approved two years ago.

When the decision comes in May, I still believe the Vikings will get the 2018 Super Bowl, and if the state has to approve tax breaks to do it, that's likely what will happen. Right or wrong, there's been too much momentum toward the new stadium, with a Super Bowl driving too much of the energy, for the whole thing to die on such a small hill.