Senate committee approves Twins stadium plan, but hurdles awaitby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Twins scored a political victory on Monday night when a Minnesota Senate committee approved a bill that would help the Twins finance a new ballpark. The measure is the same as one proposed as last year. It would increase the sales tax by .15 percent. The 10-year-old debate over the ball park hasn't gotten any weaker with age.
St. Paul, Minn. — Last year the Twins and Hennepin County had an agreement on funding for a new ballpark, but lawmakers never gave the the plan final approval.
Supporters, like Republican Sen. Dick Day of Owatonnna, say it's time for the Legislature to take action on the measure. He was one of several members of the Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee who approved the measure on a divided voice vote.
"Boy, we've kicked this thing around. I just hope that we, as members of this committee and as we move forward, that we don't let this one get away from us because it's time for us to step up to the plate," he said.
The Twins have been pushing for a new ballpark since the mid-1990s. Lawmakers have been reluctant to provide any state money for a new stadium for fear that they'd face voter wrath at the ballot box. But the bill's chief author, DFL Sen. Steve Kelley of Hopkins, says his constituents also don't want to see the Twins or any other Minnesota sports team leave the state.
"Sixty percent of my constituents wanted me to make sure I didn't let any of the teams leave town," Kelley told the committee. "And 60 percent of my constituents didn't want to pay anything in order to prevent that from happening. So I've been trying to figure out how we blend those views of the public in as responsible a way as possible."
The bill is the same one that was pitched last session. The Twins would kick in about one quarter of project's original $478 million cost. The rest would come from a countywide .15-percent sales-tax increase in Hennepin County.
Last December the Twins and the Hennepin County Board said the stadium agreement had expired because inflation would require another $30 million in funding. Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat says they're willing to push the issue again because Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders indicated support for the plan. Opat didn't specify where they would find the extra money but said it would not come from state taxpayers.
"We're going to look at the team increasing its contribution to a point and then we'll look at what other options are available to us,m but no other options have been identified yet," according to Opat.
Opat says they also had preliminary discussions with Minneapolis city leaders about a possible contribution. By law, the city can spend no more than $10 million on the project without voter approval. State law requires voter approval of the Hennepin County sales-tax increase as well, unless the Legislature says that step can be skipped. Opat says the county and the Twins oppose any efforts to allow a voter referendum on the sales tax proposal.
That raised the ire of Bruce Pomeranz of Fridley. He said it would be hypocritical for politicians to deny voters a say on the tax proposal and then in November beg the public to "vote, vote vote.".
"And yet some of us will take the position that 'we want you to vote here, but we also don't want you to vote for something else that is statutorily required.' Please tell me, if that is not the definition of hypocrisy, what is?" Pomeranz said.
Even though Pomeranz is from Anoka County, he's concerned because the Minnesota Vikings and that county are also asking for a countywide sales tax increase without voter approval. He says the Twins bill would set a bad precedent if lawmakers went against state law and approved the sales tax increase without voter approval.
Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach of Paynesville voted against the proposal because the measure does not include a referendum.
"I would like to see the referendum on the bill because that's the fairness issue," she said. "That's the way my cities have to do it in my district if they want to have a local option sales tax."
Other critics say Twins owner Carl Pohlad should spend more of his own money on the ballpark. They say teams in other cities have spent their own money on stadiums.
James Hafner, who also lives in Anoka County, doesn't buy the idea that lawmakers have to approve this measure this session.
"Any good salesman will tell you the same thing. 'Act now because this is a good deal and it won't last forever.' As a Minnesotan, I know another stadium pitch is just around the corner," he said.
But a recent court ruling puts some added pressure on state lawmakers to get the measure done this session. A Hennepin County judge ruled in February that the Twins can leave the Metrodome at the end of this season.
The chief House author of the bill, Rep. Brad Finstad, says he is also pushing to get a full House vote as soon as possible. He says his colleagues will get a little more nervous about voting for the bill as the session draws to a close and they start thinking about the upcoming election. The House Taxes Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill on Monday.