Minnesota’s Ballpark Plan Faces First Legislative Test

Mon May 23, 2005 - Midwest Edition

ST. PAUL (AP) The proposed Twins ballpark faced its first legislative hurdle as backers of the plan asked a House committee for permission to raise Hennepin County’s sales tax to help pay for the $478 million stadium.

The House Governmental Operations Committee worked late into the night May 11 reviewing the outdoor stadium bill. As of 11 p.m., there was still no vote, as committee members rejected a series of amendments that were opposed by stadium supporters.

Though only the first step in the long legislative process, passage by the committee would be a powerful signal of legislative support for the latest Twins plan. Over the last decade, previous failed stadium proposals have littered the halls of the Capitol.

Officials from the Twins and their Hennepin County backers told lawmakers they crafted a bill that could pass legislative muster.

“We’ve heard you –– we’ve heard, no state money,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who negotiated the latest deal with the team. “In a perfect world we’d have some, but we understand the world we live in and we’re trying to deal with the art of the possible.”

State lawmakers wouldn’t directly approve Hennepin County’s proposed 0.15 percent sales tax increase, which would raise $353 million for the stadium’s construction. But the Legislature has to give the county board permission to boost the tax.

The rest of the construction costs, $125 million, would be put forward by Twins owner Carl Pohlad.

“I think it’s a stadium proposal for all of the state,” said Rep. Brad Finstad, R-New Ulm, the bill’s House sponsor. “I just think it’s time we roll up our sleeves and get the job done.”

Supporters of the ballpark plan outweighed opponents at May 10’s hearing, but opponents brought forward an argument that could get a sympathetic ear among at least some lawmakers –– that the citizens of Hennepin County deserve the right to vote on the proposed sales tax increase.

“Democracy sometimes moves slow,” said John Knight, a Minnetonka attorney who’s become one of the leading ballpark opponents. “Why are they afraid to have the people decide? Because they think it will lose. They think it won’t pass, and they’re just afraid to say it.”

Supporters say holding a referendum would delay the proposed 2009 opening date on the 42,000-seat stadium by at least a year. Twins Sports Inc. President Jerry Bell said getting the new stadium is integral to the team’s survival.

“The perpetuation of quality teams with low revenue is not a plan for success. The current business model is not sustainable,” Bell told legislators. “The next few weeks will determine the future of the Minnesota Twins.”

With little time left in the regular legislative session, the ballpark proposal has a number of hoops to jump through. Assuming passage by the Government Operations Committee, the proposal will get taken up by the Local Government Committee; the bill also will have to clear the Taxes Committee before a floor vote.

The state Senate has yet to move on the proposal, but Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, has said hearings will start there soon as well. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he’d prefer a county-wide vote on the sales tax increase, but also has indicated it’s not a deal-breaker.

But Pawlenty said lawmakers should first finish work on state budget issues before holding floor votes on the stadium bill.

“It’s really important that the Legislature not spend a lot of time on stadium issues unless and until we get our work done,” Pawlenty said. “First things first.”