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After debate and drama, Senate passes stadium bill
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
March 13, 2002

A Twins ballpark bill has limped across the finish line in the Senate. It's the first time a stadium bill has succeeded in the House or Senate since 1997. The bill survived several potentially lethal amendments, and passed only after lawmakers scaled back a proposed statewide tax on sports memorabilia. But ballpark supporters say many more obstacles remain. The legislation must be reconciled with a competing proposal in the House, and the Ventura administration is poised to offer a third alternative later this week.

After seven hours of debate, the Senate finally voted 37-30 in favor of the ballpark bill. Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, the chief sponsor in the Senate, says the vote is a victory for Twins fans who've weathered years of uncertainty and often emotional debate.

"This has five to 10 years of anxiety and stress and meetings and constituents, and there's a level of anger toward the owners, toward rich ballplayers. But there are a number of us here - 37, in fact - that said it's important enough to keep the Twins and we will vote for the resources to keep them here in Minnesota," Johnson said.

The bill relies on an array of new taxes and fees to fund half the cost of a $330 million ballpark. In addition to parking fees, ticket and concession surcharges, and media access fees, the bill allows the stadium's host city to charge a bar and restaurant tax, subject to voter approval.

The package also calls for a metropolitan tax on licensed sports memorabilia. That tax was originally designed to be statewide, but a statewide levy to fund the construction bonds would have required a three-fifths supermajority to pass.

Altering the scope of the tax didn't change many votes, but it did lower the threshold for passage to an attainable simple majority. Still, many senators found it unacceptable to raise revenues for a ballpark, including Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis.

"The first tax increase that this body is debating is not to fix our schools, lower class size; not for nursing homes; not to give money back to crime victims; not to make our prisons safe. What is the first tax increase we are proposing? For a stadium," she said.

To make the bill palatable, amendment after amendment was offered to add funding for affordable housing, transportation, and even airport noise mitigation. Most were defeated.

The final bill does allow the host city to charge a rental car surcharge to address housing and airport noise issues.

Twins lobbyist Steve Novak says it's unfortunate the bill has become a vehicle for other legislative agendas. But Novak - a former state senator - says passing the Senate is a significant step.

"It's by no means a perfectly-crafted bill, but it has enough elements in it that I think with a lot of work in a conference committee we can come out of here with something that can get a stadium built," according to Novak.

Novak says the Senate bill directs revenue sources that the Twins were counting on, such as naming rights and personal seat license proceeds, to stadium construction rather than to the team's operating expenses. He says such issues could make the deal unacceptable to the team. But the plan will no doubt go through additional revisions as it's paired with a competing House proposal.

The House plan allows the team to capture a larger share of revenues and funds the state portion of the ballpark through a newspaper and magazine sales tax. That tax would be subject to a non-binding state referendum.

Gov. Ventura is expected to release a plan of his own soon. House, Senate, and the governor must be on the same page to enact any plan.

Meanwhile, public opposition to the plan is heating up. The conservative Taxpayers League and the liberal Progressive Minnesota have teamed up to oppose any public support for a ballpark.

Progressive Minnesota Executive Director Dan McGrath says lawmakers should be careful how they vote. "This comes down to electoral accountability. And both of our organizations are poised to make the vote known to voters all across this state and to let people know who voted to raise their taxes to subsidize a billionaire and who voted to listen to voters," McGrath said.

In previous years, pro-stadium votes have nearly cost some legislators re-election. But many sense the recent threat of contraction has altered the landscape, convincing many Minnesotans to support stadium assistance in order to keep the team in the state.

More from MPR
  • Session 2002 Issue Briefing: Stadium
  • House bill relies on newspaper, restaurant taxes for stadium 3/12/2002