Vikings Stadium - Another Deal
The Governor, Mayor Rybak, and the Vikings have come out with a deal. Unfortunately, it changed very little from the previous proposal that the Mayor and Council President presented several weeks ago to the Council's Committee of the Whole. I had hoped that the fact that seven Council Members had gone on record at that meeting opposing the plan would have inspired some compromises and changes on key objections, including the refusal to put it to a referendum, but, regrettably, it did not.
I continue to oppose any scheme for the City of Minneapolis to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars ($338.7 million in this proposal), to a private enterprise without a referendum. It is also worth noting that the City Finance Director estimates that that $338.7 in present day dollars will actually amount to $650 million by the time everything is paid off in 2046. I will not vote for this plan.
One reason why I oppose this plan is because I think it disproportionately and unfairly punishes Minneapolis in general, but downtown area residents, businesses and visitors in particular. According to one recent report, we are already one of the highest, if not the highest, taxed downtowns in the nation.
The most important reason I will vote no is that I believe a yes vote would be in direct violation of the spirit of the City's charter, which calls for a referendum on support for stadiums over $10 million. There may be legal loopholes that allow stadium proponents to think they can get away with this, but it's clearly not in keeping with the spirit.
This whole debate highlights a philosophical divide on where Minneapolis city government gets its authority to govern. It's true that we are a creation of the Legislature, empowered by them to be a self-governing municipality. It's also true that we have our own fundamental compact between the people of Minneapolis and their government, in the form of the Charter. We exist in a critical nexus between the power of institutions above us and the grassroots beneath.
The question is: which is more important? Should the City of Minneapolis be seen mostly as a creation of the Legislature, which we can and should ask to meddle in our affairs to get around our laws and even our Charter when it's deemed to be convenient? Or should the City be seen mostly as a creation of the people of Minneapolis, whom we are elected to represent? Put differently, do we get our power from the top down, or from the bottom up?
I believe our authority - in both legal and moral terms - comes from the bottom up. The key value of Grassroots Democracy that guides my work helps inform this perspective. The City of Minneapolis exists to serve our residents and businesses, not as a projection of power down from the state.
From this bottom-up perspective, it's clear that while we arguably can go to the Legislature and ask them to preempt our Charter, we should not do so.
This isn't just an ethical argument, either. It's a strategic one. Right now, municipalities in Michigan face the real prospect of having their local governments disbanded and replaced with a state-appointed "manager." When the City plays with this kind of fire, there is a risk that we might get burned.
The argument that stadium supporters are making - that sales tax dollars have really always been State tax dollars, and we've just been using them - is quite a stretch. The State authorized the City to impose a sales tax. The City then decided, by ordinance, to impose that tax. We then used it for a City-controlled facility (the Convention Center) for decades. But those were actually State tax dollars all along!
It's a slippery-slope sort of argument. If it's true for the downtown sales taxes, why isn't it true for all taxes levied by the City of Minneapolis? How do we draw that line, from this point onward?
And so we see quotes like this gem from Ted Mondale: "The money is never touched by the city. The state in the end spends the money. So therefore the city's not spending money." It sounds akin to defending embezzlement by saying: "I didn't take the money from you. Your never touched the money. I took it from your bank account."
There are other specifics of this deal that I question. How is it that the same sales taxes that currently pay for the Convention Center will be extended to pay for the Vikings Stadium, Target Center, and continue to pay for the Convention Center? Is it at all reasonable to expect that this taffylike extension of those tax dollars will actually meet all of those demands? Or will some portion of those three major liabilities outpace the limited resources? Is Minneapolis alone in shouldering this risk, as it appears? (Note that under this deal, the State of Minnesota has no ongoing operating maintenance responsibilities.)
The plan is being sold as requiring "no new taxes" at the local level. But what happens if and when there are maintenance overruns? What tax dollars will be used to hold the Convention Center, Target Center and Vikings Stadium harmless?
We're being asked to take on outsized risk, in clear violation of the spirit (and possibly also the letter) of our Charter, in order to give hundreds of millions of public dollars to a private enterprise. I suspect that the legislature could craft the law to not even require a vote from the Council. But so far the governor and the leading legislators have said that will not do that. They believe that a special law like this needs to have local government approval. I believe it also needs the approval of the people.