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Vikings stadium: Referendum or leverage?

As we noted earlier this week, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton introduced the possibility of a voter referendum on the Minnesota Vikings stadium proposal. In a classic example of modern leadership, Dayton said he is officially neutral on the issue. But his words have opened the floodgates for some pretty scary political posturing if you’re a stadium proponent.

Minnesota’s two highest-ranking state legislators have told reporters they want Ramsey County voters to vote on the 0.5-cent sales tax hike that would provide a key funding piece of the Vikings' $1.057 billion project. The Star Tribune has details from Senate Majority leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, the powerful political pair who backed Dayton off every tax hike he proposed in a recent budget showdown.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a referendum would scuttle the project entirely. Would a majority of Ramsey citizens, or any other tax base, vote to raise their own taxes? Probably not.

State Rep. Morrie Lanning, one of the stadium bill’s authors, said a referendum would put “the kibosh on the stadium project." As a result, Lanning somewhat hyperbolically suggested, "the Vikings will be sold, and they will move."

The bill that approved baseball's Target Field overrode calls for a referendum on a Hennepin County tax hike, and the Vikings have said they expect similar language. A referendum might not be held until November 2012, delaying the project past the Vikings’ February 2012 lease expiration at the Metrodome.

I've avoided the whole democracy-republic argument in previous posts and won’t bore you too much with my feelings on that. Generally speaking, I think citizens should get an opportunity to voice approval or concerns through public hearings. But elected officials are on a slippery slope when they start delegating specific policy decisions to a cross-section of voters.

Koch and Zellers know how difficult it will be to approve stadium financing via referendum. Perhaps it's their back-door way of rejecting the Vikings’ proposal without taking full responsibility. Or maybe, and more likely, they've grabbed it as a political chip to cash in when bill negotiations heat up.

As I always say, stadium projects always get bogged down in rhetoric and threats. We’re approaching that phase in Minnesota. No more and no less.