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Twins gain victory as stadium plan advances
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
March 21, 2002

The Minnesota Twins are celebrating a House committee's approval of new ballpark legislation. The House Ways and Means committee voted 22-6 in favor of a bill modelled closely on a financing plan offered by Gov. Jesse Ventura last week. The plan envisions a limited role for the state's contribution, but the version approved in committee would give a host community the option of raising local taxes to help fund the project.

Twins President Jerry Bell has reacted cautiously to previous stadium advances, referring to them as additional steps in the search for a new ballpark. But he says the latest committee vote is something more: it's a big step. Bell told committee members he's more hopeful than ever.

"We feel that for the first time in six years that I've been attempting to get something done here, that we have a very good chance to do this. We - with few issues with regard to flexibility - support this bill," Bell said.

The plan is a radical departure from previous stadium funding concepts. Modelled on a package proposed by Gov. Ventura last week, the plan calls for the state take advantage of low interest rates to float $330 million in bonds to cover stadium construction costs.

At the same time, the Twins would pay half that amount into a special gift fund Since the fund is expected to return tax-free investment earnings at a higher rate than the interest on the bonds, the fund balance would - over 30 years - grow large enough to retire the stadium construction debt.

The team, possibly in conjunction with a host city, would also make annual payments to cover interest on the bonds.

"We feel that for the first time in six years that I've been attempting to get something done here, that we have a very good chance to do this. "

- Jerry Bell, Minnesota Twins president

Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake, the chief sponsor of the proposal, says when the bonds mature, the state will have recouped its entire investment.

"What we attempted to do is keep that arm's length that the governor mentioned in his statement on Friday, where we are merely helping to finance and not funding the proposal. And I think we're doing that in the bill," according to Mares.

The host city's share could come from ticket surcharges or increases in the bar, restaurant, or hotel taxes. Those new levies would be subject to a referendum to be held in June. And the plan contains some state dollars - ballpark construction materials would be exempt from the state sales tax and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission is instructed to contribute a portion of its reserves to a stadium construction fund. Those elements sum to roughly $25 million, or less than one-tenth of the ballpark's expected cost.

Finance Commissioner Pam Wheelock says the governor may frown on those items, but she says Ventura is nonetheless pleased that lawmakers seem to have embraced his proposal.

"We're pleased in the executive branch that this concept has been so well-received and is apparently becoming the foundation for a public discussion about what we can or should do for a Twins stadium here in this state. But I think we're a long way from knowing what the final version of the legislation is that will reach his desk," Wheelock said.

The strong 22-6 vote suggests the plan could have traction on the House floor, where many members have been skeptical of proposals that called for new state taxes to fund a stadium.

But opponents of publicly subsidies says the new plan isn't any better than previous ideas.

Dan Dobson, who represents the group Financial Accountability for New Stadiums, says under the new plan, state taxes that littered other bills are simply being shifted to local bar, restaurant, and hotel levies.

"We're no longer seeing the car rental tax; we're no longer the sports memorabilia tax. We aren't seeing the newspaper or the magazine tax that came out of tax committee. But we are now seeing the bar and restaurant tax going from three percent to five percent. It's now being added to hotels. This is simply an attempt to shift it to put the burden on St. Paul or Minneapolis," he said.

The plan must still clear the full House. If it survives, it must be reconciled with a plan that's already cleared the Senate. That proposal relies on a long menu of state taxes, surcharges, and user fees to fund the stadium. But its chief author has already indicated an interest in the Ventura plan and has said he's willing to incorporate into his bill.

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