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Twins stadium goes to Senate floor
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
March 8, 2002

A plan to fund a new Twins ballpark, and possible a Vikings stadium, is on its way to the full Senate for consideration. On a 17-10 vote the Senate Tax Committee approved the measure, which draws on user fees and a variety of specialized taxes to finance the plan. The legislation also requires a referendum before the facility's host community could impose local sales taxes to support construction. Even as the package is picking up steam, however, it's getting mixed reactions from the teams that would benefit.

The plan sets up a sports facilities account to be fed from ticket and concession surcharges at any new stadium, plus the revenues from a smorgasbord of new taxes. Those would include a levy on licensed sports memorabilia, a possible car rental tax in the host community, and food and beverage tax also in the host community. An amendment to the bill, however, requires local voter approval before any of the community-specific taxes could be imposed.

Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, is the chief sponsor of the legislation. He opposed adding a referendum requirement, but says he doesn't think it will kill the plan.

"I think it gives us another hurdle, another mountain to climb, in this ballpark discussion. And I'm confident with the bill that we have now moving in the Senate that the public is going to be OK with it," says Johnson. "And we will be able to keep the Minnesota Twins. We are not going to have this opportunity in 2003."

Johnson and others argued lawmakers shouldn't wash their hands of the issue by leaving the tax decision up to a referendum. And referendum opponents say the future of the Twins is a statewide issue that shouldn't be left to voters in the host community. But Tax Chair Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, turned that argument on its head. Pogemiller suggested the tax should apply statewide to match the team's importance - and he singled out Johnson's home district.

"For those of you who are so willing to talk about 'this is a judgement by the state,' then let's put the food and liquor on in Willmar. The simple fact is this is food and liquor in our cities, not yours," Pogemiller argued.

"The referendum, however, is strongly opposed by the team. Twins President Jerry Bell says requiring voter approval complicates the process and could cause unnecessary delays. In a letter earlier this week, he also voiced concerns about other portions of the bill.

For example, the plan would direct revenues from ballpark naming rights, personal seat licenses, and media access fees to construction costs. Bell says the Twins are counting on those proceeds to help cover the team's operating expenses.

Bell points out the ballclub proposed a plan last year that relied on a no-interest loan from the state and a sales-tax free zone in the stadium.

"This bill is completely different. We tried to point that out when we sent the letter to the members the other day. And so if they want to bring back the bill that we proposed last year in the way that we proposed it, we'll still do that," says Bell.

Opponents of public participation in a new stadium argued many of the taxes can't legitimately be considered user fees. Dan Dobson of the group Financial Accountability for New Stadiums told lawmakers that - even with a new stadium - baseball's economics will continue to favor large market teams over their small market rivals. Dobson notes a recent stadium task force called for baseball reform as a condition of public assistance.

"Not one of these bills requires Major League Baseball to do a single thing. Shame on you! Where is the reform here? I don't see it. You're being bullied by a bunch of billionaire owners, by their threats," Dobson says.

The bill now moves to the Senate floor where it could be taken up as early as next week. The plan also leaves the door open for using the same funding mechanisms for a combined Vikings-Gophers football facility down the line. Vikings Vice President Mike Kelly says the team will step behind the proposal as a way to move the debate forward.

"If I could write the bill, pass the bill, would it look like this? No, of course not. But this is real progress. It's meaningful progress," Kelly says.

A string of stadium legislation is still awaiting action in the House. Lawmakers there have been taking testimony over the last several days and are expected to begin voting on stadium plans in the next few days.

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