Ballpark clears House

  • Article by: Mike Kaszuba
  • Star Tribune
  • April 27, 2006 - 6:41 AM

The Minnesota Twins swatted their biggest political hit in decades Wednesday when the Minnesota House endorsed a proposal to build a $522 million stadium for the team in downtown Minneapolis.

The next stop for the stadium proposal is the Minnesota Senate, where it faces challenges but where Twins spokesman Jerry Bell said he has been assured there is ample support. The Senate Taxes Committee could begin its deliberations today.

Wednesday's final 76-55 vote capped a marathon House session that, by the end of the day, gave the Twins a wider margin of support than many had anticipated.

As the vote was announced after more than seven hours of debate, Bell smiled and reached over to shake hands with Twins President Dave St. Peter in the House gallery. With an eye toward the Senate, Bell said the Twins would resist attempts to alter the proposal significantly.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who had pledged there would be enough House votes for the plan, also cautioned the Senate about changing the proposal.

"If the Democrats in the Senate want to goof it up," he said, "... that will be their choice, and their consequences."

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement that Wednesday's vote was a "decisive action to secure Major League Baseball in Minnesota," and said the Metrodome is "no longer an acceptable venue for the Twins."

For much of the day, the complicated stadium funding plan was under assault by opponents. Under the plan, Hennepin County would contribute $392 million to the project, with the Twins adding the remaining $130 million. But in an early signal of how Wednesday's vote might end up, the House voted to grant the county an exemption to having to hold a citizen referendum before imposing a .15 percent sales tax increase to fund the project.

Gophers, Vikings waiting

Even as the Twins enjoyed center stage at the Legislature, there was plenty of evidence that the two other major stadium proposals seeking state approval -- one for the Minnesota Vikings and another for the University of Minnesota football team -- were waiting nearby. As the House debated the Twins proposal, the chief House author of the Vikings stadium plan announced that his proposal would soon be before the House. Elsewhere at the State Capitol on Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved an altered version of the university stadium project.

The Twins' success so far at the State Capitol has not necessarily come because they have won over critics, but, according to some, because the team's long struggle for a replacement for the 24-year-old Metrodome may have worn them down.

"It's a railroading of the democratic process. There's supposed to be a referendum," said Jan Nye, a Minneapolis resident. But Nye was one of just four opponents who watched last week as the stadium proposal survived the first of a series of close votes at both the Legislature and the Hennepin County Board.

Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, a leading legislative critic of the proposal, said the stadium's success was the result of a brilliant, but cynical, political strategy. She said that by proposing to pay for the stadium with a sales tax only in Hennepin County, the Twins and the county made it easier for other metro and outstate legislators to vote for the stadium because they could tell their own constituents they would not be taxed.

"It was masterful," said Lenczewski, whose attempts to instead use a statewide sales tax to help pay for the stadium were defeated last week in the House Taxes Committee. She said the stadium's watershed moment probably came at a noisy public hearing last Thursday in a Bloomington middle school. Lenczewski said that when her attempt to use a statewide sales tax failed, along with a call by Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Lino Lakes, for a citizens referendum the odds of blocking the stadium in the House became minimal.

"At that moment, I thought that the stadium was passed," she said. "There it went, right there."

Lenczewski moved again Wednesday to have a referendum made part of the stadium proposal, but the House narrowly rejected the measure by a 66-64 vote. Stadium opponents quickly accused some legislators of opposing the referendum after promising critics that they would vote for it.

"What are we doing here? It's wrong," said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, who urged her colleagues unsuccessfully to require a referendum. "Sure, it's an easy vote for all of you who don't live in Hennepin County."

Others, however, were unmoved. "Had we had a referendum on the Mall of America, it would never have been built," said Rep. Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington, one of the few legislators from Hennepin County who opposed the referendum. "Let's get it done."

Action moves to Senate

Though the vote was a significant milestone for the Twins, the attention turned almost immediately to the Senate, which has only briefly discussed the stadium proposal but has scheduled a hearing for today. Others turned their focus to the role that may yet be played by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has said he prefers a referendum but supports the Twins proposal.

"We urge the governor to keep his no-new-tax pledge and veto this $1.1 billion tax increase unless there is a referendum," said Laura Lehmann of Citizens for a Stadium Tax Referendum.

But in remarks to reporters Wednesday, Pawlenty appeared to leave little doubt about where he stood. "We're not going to lose the Minnesota Twins on my watch," he said.

Throughout the day, stadium opponents in the House tried to attach a series of amendments to the proposal to either derail it or make it more politically digestible. One amendment asked that at least 80 percent of the revenue the Twins receive from the sale of stadium naming rights go to the newly created ballpark authority, which would oversee the stadium. The amendment lost by a 75-56 vote.

David Strom, president of the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said the stadium proposal's success in the House was a result of Republicans who were eager to show voters that, unlike last year, the Legislature was in a mood to act. The strategy, he said, could backfire at the polls in November if Republican voters feel their legislators have abandoned a conservative spending philosophy.

"Republicans are trying to spend their way to election success," said Strom, who watched Wednesday's proceedings and opposed the Twins stadium proposal. "I think the Republicans are in trouble in being out of control."

But Doug Carlson of Apple Valley, wearing a Twins jersey and cap, said he drove to the Capitol on Wednesday to make sure Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, his legislator, voted for the stadium.

Said Carlson: "The only reason he [gets] his yard sign in my yard is [if] he votes for the stadium."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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