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St. Paul ballpark bill moves ahead; Viking-'U' stadium proposed
by Robert Whereatt and Kevin Duchschere, Rochelle Olson contributing

Legislation that would locate a baseball stadium for the Twins in St. Paul and earmark local taxes to pay for it cleared a Senate committee Thursday, the first stadium bill of the 2002 legislative session to make an initial move.

The bill was sent to the Senate Committee on Taxes, where most other stadium bills will be gathered, part of an overall plan to fashion a single ballpark bill for consideration by the full Senate.

"I know that baseball is a tough issue for almost everyone in the Legislature," St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly told the Local Government Operations Committee.

Less than two months ago, Kelly was a colleague of the senators who confronted the issue. He became mayor in January.

"I feel the Twins are right for St. Paul. Let St. Paul be at the table," he said.

Thursday was a stadium kind of day at the Legislature.

In the House, a bill was introduced for a $500 million stadium and parking facility for the Minnesota Vikings and the University of Minnesota football Gophers. A similar bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate next week.

Under the St. Paul ballpark bill, the state would issue bonds and authorize the City Council to impose a citywide sales tax of up to 3 percent on bars and restaurants, plus add a tax of up to $1 per ticket at a stadium estimated to cost $300 million.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-North St. Paul, was supported by representatives of St. Paul's business and labor communities, all saying that the extra taxes would help the city.

On the other side of the river, Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat said he'll be coming forward soon with what he called a bold plan to finance a stadium in Minneapolis.

He said he was not concerned about the St. Paul bill getting a hearing first. "It doesn't say anything," he said. "We go a little bit farther."

Opat, who was at the Capitol on Thursday, said he wants to make sure the bill he lays out is solid. "We don't want something that's premature and doesn't cover all the bases," he said.

The plan is expected to have a countywide tax on rental cars plus other taxes related to stadium revenues.

Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the Taxes Committee, said he didn't know when his city was going to move. "I'm still waiting to hear from them," he said.

Once a fighting word

Stadium supporters -- for the Twins and Vikings -- are hoping legislators' resistance has subsided from previous years when "stadium" was almost a fighting word.

"If you had asked me a year ago if I'd support a stadium, I'd probably have said 'no,' " said Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, chairman of the Local Government Operations Committee. That position would have reflected the sentiment of voters in his district, he said.

"But that whole thing has changed. They say [now] you better not let those Twins leave the state," Vickerman said.

Not everyone is on board.

Progressive Minnesota, an advocacy group and political party that fought St. Paul's ballpark tax referendum in 1999, is insisting that Kelly's proposed bar and restaurant tax also go before the voters.

About 25 members held a brief rally Thursday at the Capitol, flashing valentines that read "No Sweetheart Deals for Billionaires! Give taxpayers a chance at bat."

Dan Rodriguez, chairman of Progressive Minnesota, said: "We should let democracy rule and we should let voters vote on whether they want a tax increase."

Kelly said there isn't enough time for a referendum.

"I tend to think that with contraction hanging over us, there is a real timing issue. It's a small window of opportunity," he said.

Major League Baseball announced plans in November to eliminate two teams, later identified as the Twins and Montreal Expos, for the 2002 season. That "contraction" plan has been postponed.

Dan McGrath of Progressive Minnesota said now that it's clear the Twins are going to play this season, "we have a whole year to have an open debate on this thing."

Senate leaders have said that other things on the public to-do list -- balancing the state budget, passing transportation-funding and bonding bills -- are priorities, and that stadium legislation will take a back seat.

The Senate now has passed its budget-balancing bill. It is expected to pass a capital improvement bill early next week.

Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, sponsor of another stadium bill, said the plan is to fashion a stadium bill next week in the Taxes Committee and have it to the Senate floor by the last week of February.

Then, he said, the Senate "will hit a high fly ball to the House."

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, acknowledging that the House is behind the Senate in passing its key bills, said he anticipates taking up a House stadium bill sometime after Feb. 27, the date he wants the final budget bill passed by the House.

"Then we will have time for other bills, including the stadium," he said.

Football stadium

The Vikings stadium bill, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Goodno, R-Moorhead, is based largely on recommendations in a report by the latest stadium task force.

It relies on user fees, statewide sales taxes on sports memorabilia and clothing, football-themed lottery scratch-off tickets, a $100 million contribution from the Vikings and $51.5 million from the National Football League.

The University of Minnesota would fund a $60 million parking ramp next to the stadium, which would be built on the Minneapolis campus. It would recover the cost from parking revenue except for Vikings games.

Asked if he thought the Legislature would approve two stadiums this session, Vikings lobbyist Lester Bagley said: "I think there's a decent chance based on the stadium task force report that we can do two this year. It doesn't make sense to wait until there's a crisis in football, as there is in baseball."

The 18-member stadium task force, appointed by the House and Senate leaders and by Gov. Jesse Ventura, recommended the building and financing of two stadiums.