Will stadium issue haunt lawmakers in November?by Brian Bakst, Associated Press
St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - Sen. Steve Kelley doesn't have to look far to see how politically risky it can be to go to bat for stadium subsidies.
He shares an office suite with Sen. Ann Rest, a fellow suburban Democrat who got a ballot-box scare in 1998 after taking the lead on a Twins ballpark bill.
As the latest - and perhaps final round - in the Twins' stadium saga heads toward conclusion, one big question looms: Is the issue as radioactive as it once was?
The prevailing wisdom at the Capitol is no. But voters will be the true judge.
Kelley, a 14-year veteran legislator from Hopkins, will get his verdict first. He's hoping to trade up to the governor's office and is seeking the DFL Party's endorsement next month.
"Among some DFL delegates, being a supporter of some public role for the sports facilities is a problem," Kelley acknowledges.
One of his rivals, Sen. Becky Lourey of Kerrick, voted against a pro-sports stadium bill this week.
Kelley sums up the quandary this way: "Sixty percent of voters want to keep the Twins and Vikings in the state, and at least 60 percent don't want to pay anything to do it."
It's a political calculation both parties are doing.
"The governor has the same political problem with stadiums from his conservative base as Democrats have with stadiums from their liberal base," noted Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar and a past sponsor of stadium legislation.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who voted against stadium bills as a legislator, is now a cheerleader for the Twins project even though he doesn't like all facets of the plan. He wants a proposed Hennepin County sales tax increase put to voters, but he's willing to sign a bill without the referendum.
"Governor Pawlenty above all puts a premium on leadership, and occasionally that means those on the extreme on either end of the political spectrum are going to be upset with you," said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung.
The political middle might not be entirely safe, though. The Independence Party's gubernatorial candidate, Peter Hutchinson, could have running room as an opponent of subsidies for pro sports stadiums.
Besides the Twins, the Vikings and University of Minnesota football teams are after approval for new stadiums this year.
To get a stadium plan through the Senate, Kelley revamped the financing to attract his party's left flank. Instead of a Hennepin County-only tax, he broadened it to seven metropolitan counties and attached a $7.4 billion sweetener for mass transit projects through 2030.
Some avowed stadium opponents said it was an offer too good to pass up, but a final bill is unlikely to contain the transit money given loud objections by Pawlenty and House Republicans.
There are some factors that have muted stadium opposition this year. For one, the Twins proposal seeks authorization of a local tax and doesn't call for state tax money (although construction supplies would be free from sales taxes). Also, a court ruling this winter freed the Twins from any long-term obligation to play in the Metrodome, allowing them to look around for a new home if a new ballpark isn't approved.
"People realize there is a legitimate chance the Twins might not stay in Minnesota after this season," said Republican strategist Chris Georgacas.
Georgacas is chairman of the upstart Fund for a Conservative Majority, aimed at electing candidates who adhere to conservative governing principles.
The group sent out questionnaires to candidates for state offices recently to gauge their stance on issues like gambling, growth in state spending, abortion and gay marriage. Noticeably absent was any mention of stadium subsidies.
The biggest remaining fault line over the Twins plan is whether to put the stadium tax to a public vote. House stadium sponsors narrowly shot down a referendum requirement. The Senate's plan calls for a seven-county vote.
A referendum, which the Twins argue brings too much uncertainty for their liking, will probably be left on the cutting room floor.
Civic leaders in Hennepin County are on record as opposing a ballot measure on the stadium, and they're asking the Legislature to follow their lead.
"I just went for a referendum. It's called an election," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told Kelley and other lawmakers working on the issue Friday. "You are about to go out for your own referendum."
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)