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Stadium backers narrowly defeat referendum requirement

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) Minnesota Twins stadium supporters narrowly turned back an attempt to force a citizen referendum on the sales tax increase that would pay for the downtown Minneapolis ballpark.

The 10-9 vote Monday night in the House Local Government Committee was deemed a make-or-break moment for the bill, which calls for Hennepin County to add 0.15 percent to the sales tax. That adds up to 3 cents on every $20 taxable purchase.

Twins Sports Inc. President Jerry Bell told the committee that a referendum would delay construction, add costs and kill the deal.

"This is the hangman's noose that is before us," echoed Rep. Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington. If the referendum amendment prevailed, he said, "The opportunity to do this stadium is gone."

The lack of a referendum is a key flashpoint in the stadium debate. State law requires such a vote in other cases where communities want to raise a local sales tax.

The vote on the referendum was expected to closely mirror the vote on the overall legislation authorizing the $478 million ballpark. The committee adjourned at midnight without taking final action and was set to resume deliberations Tuesday afternoon.

Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, doubted she and other critics would be able to slow or stop the bill. "The bill is going to pass this committee," she predicted before slamming it as a "gigantic public subsidy" to a private company owned by billionaire Carl Pohlad.

The bill's chief sponsor, GOP Rep. Brad Finstad of New Ulm, was called away because his wife went into labor - one baby, not twins - so the team relied on a pinch-hitting lawmaker to sell their plan.

That substitute, Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, reminded the panel that proposal after proposal have consumed the Legislature's attention since the Twins began their ballpark pursuit in the mid-1990s.

"Nine years is a long time," Sertich said. "It's time to get the job done on this bill."

Twins officials say the Metrodome puts them at a competitive disadvantage and leaves them near the bottom of Major League Baseball in local revenue.

They envision a 42,000-seat open-air stadium in downtown Minneapolis with twice as many concession stands as the Metrodome, more bathrooms, extra aisles and roomier concourses.

Under this year's proposal, Twins owner Pohlad would have to come up with $125 million - $40 million initially and $85 million before the stadium opens. The sales tax would cover the rest.

The committee got an earful from citizens who think taxpayers are getting bamboozled.

"The public does not support plans with this high rate of public funding. Even a third is too high," said Hennepin County resident Steve Lyons. "If the sides met in the middle - 50-50 - the public would support it and the deal would be done and 10 plus years of debate would be over."

Supporters were also vocal.

"I feel personally that the tax is insignificant," said Sue Spalding, who works with a nonprofit group that benefits from Twins charity donations. "I don't live in Hennepin County but I do 90 percent of my shopping in Hennepin County. This tax will not change where or how I shop."

The bill is due for its first Senate hearing on Wednesday.

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