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Committee gives life to Twins stadium deal at Minnesota Capitol
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Twins Sports President Jerry Bell told legislators that time is running out on attempts to approve financing for a new baseball stadium in Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
The stadium debate has been relaunched at the Capitol with fewer than two weeks left to go in the legislative session. Late Tuesday night, a plan to increase the Hennepin County sales tax to pay for the bulk of a new downtown Minneapolis ballpark cleared its first legislative hurdle on a lopsided 17-to-5 bipartisan vote. Supporters say the plan is attractive because it avoids state dollars. Detractors say it denies county residents a say in whether the tax is imposed or not.

St. Paul, Minn. — For 10 years, the Minnesota Twins have been angling for a new ballpark, and so far they've come up empty-handed. But a deal struck last month with Hennepin County seems to have more appeal.

County Commissioner Mike Opat, a key player in the ballpark debates, says a strong selling point of the new plan is its independence from state resources.

"We've heard no state money. We've heard it's not going to be that. So we haven't relied on that. In a perfect world, there would be some, but we understand the world we live in. And we're trying to deal with the art of the possible here. We think a nominal, broad-based Hennepin County sales tax was the only plan not requiring state funding and the best plan,"he said.

The tax would amount to three cents on most $20 purchases in the county, and would be supplemented by a $125 million cash contribution from the team. The total ballpark expense, including local infrastructure improvements, is estimated to be $444 million.

We're not asking for anything special. We're asking you to simply respect the law as you have written it as our representatives requiring a referendum.
- John Knight

Twins officials argue that without the new, open-air facility, the franchise won't generate enough revenue to field a competitive team.

Twins Sports President Jerry Bell told members of the House Governmental Operations and Veterans Affairs Committee that time was running out to close a deal.

"The new Twins ballpark is the only way for Minnesotans to enjoy this competitive, affordable, family entertainment for generations to come," he said. "The next few weeks, we believe, will determine the future of the Minnesota Twins."

Bell also said that the team would not seek a retractable roof at an extra cost of over $100 million and that the current proposed design was not even compatible with a roof. But before a stadium can move forward -- roof or not -- the county needs legislative permission to impose the sales tax -- and, under current law, would need approval from voters at a referendum. The bill under consideration, however, strikes the referendum requirement.

And that's drawing heat from county residents. John Knight is a Minnetonka attorney who's emerging as a key advocate for a referendum. Knight says the county's final bill, including interest payments on stadium debt, could top $1 billion.

"If we require a voter referendum to replace a school gymnasium or to hire more cops, why would we exempt a $1.1 billion deal that benefits a private business? As voters, we're not asking for anything special. We're asking you to simply respect the law as you have written it as our representatives requiring a referendum," Knight said.

The committee, however, rejected an amendment to preserve the referendum requirement. It also turned down an alternative that would have given all cities and counties the exemption that Hennepin County is seeking.

The final bill was approved on a 17-to-5 vote. But not all "yes" votes were equally enthusiastic. St. Paul DFLer Tim Mahoney voted in favor, he says, simply to advance the debate. He nevertheless took issue with the financing proposal.

"The way this bill looks, the way this thing treats Hennepin County and abdicates the state's responsibility to the Twins. I'll tell you this: I'm not going to any more Twins games after this. I think it's that bad," Mahoney said.

Still, top lawmakers say there's a good chance the Twins bill will generate enough support to pass this year. But whether it actually does pass is another question. With the House and Senate deeply divided over how to close an expected budget deficit and how to fund schools and health care, the stadium package could be trapped in end-of-session gridlock.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he wants lawmakers to keep their priorities straight.

"While I said I would entertain some discussion about the Twins stadium, I said first things first. And it seems like they're kind of creeping the issue up the attention meter a little bit, and that concerns me," according to Pawlenty.

The Twins plan still has at least three more committee stops in the House before it could appear before the full body for a vote. A companion bill in the Senate has yet to have a hearing.