House passes new stadium bill for Minnesota Twinsby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
After eight hours of debate, the Minnesota House has given the go-ahead to a controversial plan for a new outdoor stadium for the Minnesota Twins. By a comfortable 76-to-55 margin, the House approved a measure that would allow Hennepin County to impose a sales tax without voter approval. The tax would fund most of the cost of the downtown Minneapolis ballpark. Efforts to give voters a say over the sales tax failed. So did several other attempts to change the stadium plan.
St. Paul, Minn. — On the House floor the chief author of the Twins bill made the same pitch he made to the four House committees that heard the bill. Republican Brad Finstad of New Ulm said lawmakers have been debating the Twins stadium bill for 11 years and it's time for them to bring the issue to a close by adopting his proposal.
"Over time, there has been a lot of objections from this body and a lot of concerns form both the citizens and legislators and local officials alike. And what this proposal is is a fine-tuned, well-negotiated agreement between the Twins and Hennepin County," he said.
Finstad's proposal involves a mix of public and private money. Twins owner Carl Pohlad will pay $130 million towards the stadium. But the plan also requires a Hennepin County sales tax of .15 percent. The tax finances the remaining three quarters of the ballpark's $522 million cost.
Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum predicted the Twins bill would pass without allowing voters to have a say on the tax. He was right, with the House narrowly defeating attempts to require a referendum.
Republican Rep. Mary Liz Holberg of Lakeville in Dakota County urged her colleagues to support the referendum. She cited a state law that requires other cities and counties to hold a referendum when they want to increase their sales taxes.
"I think if this goes through, this body owes the taxpayers of Hennepin County an apology. What are we doing here? It's wrong. Sure it's an easy vote for all of you who don't live in Hennepin County, it's not your taxpayers," she said.
The Twins and Hennepin County have been seeking a waiver to the referendum requirement. They say requiring a vote would cause delays, increase the costs of a stadium, and kill the deal.
Critics countered that supporters were simply afraid the unpopular sales tax would be defeated at the ballot box. Several lawmakers said they're worried that the Twins will leave if a stadium package is not approved this year. That's because a recent court ruling allows the Twins to leave the Metrodome at the end of the season.
Republican Rep. Neil Peterson of Bloomington says he doesn't want to see that happen. Peterson is one of a few lawmakers from Hennepin County who supports the stadium plan. He says lawmakers were elected to lead on controversial issues like this one.
"Had we had a referendum on the Mall of America, it would never have been built," he said.
But DFL Rep. Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington says the sales tax should be decided on a broader basis than the 4-to-3 vote by Hennepin County Board members. She says Hennepin County residents can vote against those four members in the next election but that will do little to limit the plan's billion-dollar cost to taxpayers over 30 years.
"You've committed the people of Hennepin County to a $392 million check to the Twins at the cost of $1.1 billion and you cannot undue it," she said.
The House approved two changes to the bill. One would forbid any elected official from serving on the ballpark authority that oversees the stadium. The other gives Hennepin County a portion of the sale price if the team is sold. The money would pay off construction debt. Originally, the money went the ballpark authority.
They overwhelmingly defeated a proposal that would rename the team the Hennepin County Twins. They also defeated an attempt to require Twins owner Carl Pohlad to pay for half of the stadium.
Republican Rep. Phil Krinkie questioned why taxpayers were being asked to subsidize a ballpark for a team of millionaire players that is owned by a billionaire.
"What has changed in the last 10 years in the debate about the Twins stadium? The owners worth has more than doubled that's what has changed," Krinkie said.
The House action put the Twins one step closer to leaving the Metrodome, where they've been playing since 1982. Twins Sports Inc. President Jerry Bell was all smiles after the vote. When asked what the vote meant for Twins fans, Bell responded said "it's getting better all the time."
Bell's mood could change on Thursday when the Senate Taxes Committee considers bills that would fund new stadiums for the Twins, the Vikings and the University of Minnesota football team. Senate Chair Larry Pogemiller has said his committee won't embrace the Hennepin County sales tax. He previewed how he could be a thorn in the side of stadium supporters in a Wednesday Senate Finance Committee. That's where he basically stripped several critical funding mechanisms for the University of Minnesota on campus football stadium and didn't disclose how he would pay for it.