Could federal stimulus funds pay for a new Vikings stadium?

Minnesotans have had to deal with the issue of public financing for sports stadiums for as long as I’ve lived in the Twin Cities, since 1997.  For the most part, those debates have involved the Minnesota Twins, who threatened to move from the nation’s 14th-largest market to its 45th by relocating to the Carolinas.  When the state called the bluff, the Pohlads backed down.  Two years ago, Hennepin County raised its sales tax with the approval of the state legislature and Governor Tim Pawlenty to contribute the majority of funds for a new, outdoor baseball-only stadium for the Twins, which opens two months from now in downtown Minneapolis.

That leaves the Metrodome to the Minnesota Vikings, who have made it clear that they don’t want to stay in the 30-year-old facility any longer than necessary — and have also threatened to move to get a better deal.  Now the team suggests that federal stimulus money could be used to fund at least part of the costs of a new football stadium, which could make it interesting for Pawlenty, a stimulus critic:

Wilf may come up big this time. Vikings ownership thinks the federal stimulus money might be available for the project, which would put Wilf at odds with Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who is not a stimulus fan. Minnesota’s capital St. Paul would become a battleground in a way, President Obama’s stimulus plan, the Recovery Act of 2009, versus a lame duck governor who has Presidential aspirations in 2012 and would like to be the Republican nominee.

In December 2009, Pawlenty said there would be no new taxes to pay for a new Vikings stadium. Yet in the past week, Pawlenty seems to have changed his tune. Pawlenty may not like stimulus money but he has another idea that does involve taxpayers’ money.

Pawlenty thinks funds generated from a new Minnesota lottery could generate enough money to fund construction for a new football stadium. Pawlenty has also thrown out another idea, tax increment financing, which allows developers to pay less money than normal property taxes as long as that money is funneled back into the development project.

The difference in “state money” between taxes and the lottery should be painfully obvious.  Lottery sales are entirely voluntary, while taxes are not.  If people want to participate in a special state-run lottery to fund a sports stadium for a billionaire owner and multimillionaire players, more power to them.  No one argues for blocking voluntary contributions for the stadium.

The Vikings, and for that matter the Star Tribune (which has a financial interest in getting a stadium deal done on property it owns), argue that the use of federal stimulus funds is entirely appropriate.  After all, the project would generate jobs in the city, and at least in this case the jobs would last longer than the few weeks of road work that Porkulus funded.  A stadium project would take a couple of years to complete, and it would generate some boost to the local economy for the contractor and subcontractors.

Daily Caller sees this as a potential flashpoint for a possible Pawlenty/Obama debate in 2012:

The Obama versus Pawlenty 2012 President race may never play out, but a mini version of the 2012 Presidential campaign could be taking place this winter and spring in the St. Paul statehouses and at the end of the day, Zygi Wilf’s Minnesota Vikings, a team that has never won the Super Bowl, may finally win the big game, which in this case is a new stadium with all of the bells and whistles of revenue producing luxury boxes, club seats, in-stadium restaurants and stores and lots of concession money.

Well, maybe.  Pawlenty opposes Porkulus outright, but I doubt Obama is going to insist on spending stimulus dollars on a football stadium.

The DC also notes the projects funded by Minnesota taxpayers in the past, such as the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for the Wild ($130 million split with the city), and the $288 million Golden Gophers football stadium, and wonders why the state may draw the line at the Vikings.   For one thing, the Gophers are a team playing for a state university, so any new facility would have to be built from state funds.  In 1997, the economy looked a lot better than it does now, and the state had the resources to pay for the Xcel Energy Center, regardless of whether one sees it as an appropriate use of those resources.

That’s not the case now, and public funds — when they do get spent — should be used for public purposes, not to build playgrounds for billionaires, especially when money is short enough as it is.  Moreover, there is no reason for taxpayers in California, Alabama, Rhode Island, and Hawaii to send their tax dollars to build a sports stadium in Minneapolis for an NFL team.  If the state wants to use its own funds for that purpose, let the people of the state bear the burden of that foolish decision.  Better yet, use a lottery to ensure that the state doesn’t force one dime from the pockets of Minnesotans to fund the infrastructure of a private business.

If Tim Pawlenty wants to bolster his fiscal-conservative credentials, he can start by opposing this ridiculous waste of resources in the middle of a severe economic downturn.  If that differentiates him from Obama, then so much the better.

Update: Just to be clear, Pawlenty hasn’t endorsed this idea at all, and given that he doesn’t need to run for re-election in Minnesota in 2010, I’d expect him to quickly and publicly oppose it. I edited the “Well, maybe” paragraph to make that a little more clear. The “maybe” comes from my skepticism that Obama will make it an issue, not Pawlenty.