FAIRMONT - The recent change in leadership in the Minnesota Senate could bode well for a new Vikings stadium and Minnesota's public schools.
So suggests state Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, as he and his colleagues prepare for the legislative session that begins Jan. 28.
Gunther said newly elected Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, is the author of a Senate version of a racino bill. Gunther is the author in the House.
"Racino" involves putting in slot machines at Canterbury Park in Shakopee and Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus, with the state getting a share of the proceeds. The estimated $135 million in annual revenues could fund the state's share of a stadium ($45 million) and help repay money the state owes the public schools.
"The state will own the stadium and lease it to [Vikings' owner] Zigi [Wilf]," Gunther said. "If the stadium goes to Arden Hills, which is the Vikings preferred site, then Zigi would pay more."
Another component in the state expansion of gambling could be electronic pulltabs, expected to bring in an additional $25 million, Gunther says.
The state would help pay off a stadium over a decade, meaning that when those payments cease, the state would have surplus cash from racino. Gunther has authored an amendment to put the money toward economic development throughout Minnesota.
"Iowa spends $250 million annually on economic development," Gunther said. "Wisconsin spends $250 million. Minnesota spends $25 million."
This leaves Minnesota at a competitive disadvantage, said the eight-term lawmaker, who has long been involved in trying to improve the state's business climate through tax incentives and regulatory reform.
On another front, Gunther will be involved in helping shape the state bonding bill. He anticipates the state will fund about $500 million in projects. These will include roads, bridges and other infrastructure, but also local projects.
Over the years, Gunther has helped several cities in the area obtain state funding for their projects. These include the Blue Earth fire hall/police station, Jackson community center, Lake Crystal recreation center and county library in St. James. One project he is working on this year is trying to secure $100,000 for the Trimont nursing home, which is considering installing an elevator. Gunther is open to other requests, as well.
He acknowledges that state bonding generally should involve projects with statewide significance, with local government partners that provide local matching dollars. But when the state is offering funding for a wide variety of projects, Gunther says he does not want to see his district left out.
One thing lawmakers will not have to worry about this session is a budget deficit. The most recent revenue forecast by the state shows a surplus for the first time since 2006. The years after 2007 were tough and contentious as lawmakers trimmed expenses rather than raise taxes. Gunther sees that as the right choice. While a deficit is anticipated in 2013, it will be lower than if the state had continued on its previous fiscal path, he believes. He also sees surpluses in the near future because of the tough choices made in recent years.
For lawmakers, the 2012 legislative session will be easier in one giant respect: It will not involve passing a budget. That process can be rancorous and, in fact, caused a government shutdown last summer.
Other than the Vikings stadium and the bonding bill, the upcoming session will feature a few other major issues. In November 2012, voters will decide the fate of a constitutional amendment that would recognize marriage as between one man and one woman. The Legislature will consider two other constitutional amendments in coming months.
The first would require a photo ID of anyone wishing to vote. The second would make Minnesota a right-to-work state, which means people would have the right not to join unions or pay union dues.
Gunther says he favors the photo ID amendment and is leaning toward supporting the right-to-work amendment.