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House revives Twins ballpark legislation
Backers get new chance to make pitch to panel
by Aron Kahn

The Minnesota House revived the moribund Twins ballpark bill Monday, giving the ballclub a chance to win a new home.

Although a victory is far from certain, the House rejuvenated the legislation by sending it to the Tax Committee for a new set of hearings and debate, tentatively scheduled to begin Friday.

It's virtually certain the bill will be amended heavily in that committee, so lawmakers can avoid the political stigma of throwing money at billionaire Carl Pohlad, the Twins owner.

A sales-tax-free zone at the stadium, which would benefit the Twins, likely will be taken out of the bill, for example. Also, the source of a $140 million interest-free loan from the state probably will be changed. The bill currently targets excess insurance reserves in the Worker's Compensation Assigned Risk Plan as the source, but House leaders said that money has been earmarked for other projects.

``I am not aware of another funding source,'' House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said after Monday's session. The comment gives rise to the possibility that the Legislature would refrain from designating a source for the loan until next session, or instead choose another method for raising the money, such as selling bonds.

Should lawmakers decide to stick with a loan, it's virtually certain the bill will be amended to add an interest rate, somewhere between zero and the market rate. Sviggum, a longtime opponent of publicly funded stadiums, said that with enough changes, including a guarantee that no taxpayer dollars will be used, the bill might be acceptable to him. The implication was that it could pass.

But even reviving the bill was an arduous task at a Legislature that's seen the wrath of voters on the issue in previous years.

The political maneuvering started early Monday when, through an uncommon procedure, Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake, introduced a ballpark bill similar to one tabled in the House Local Government and Metropolitan Affairs Committee in mid-April, and the speaker referred it to the Tax Committee. Had Mares tried to move the previous bill to the Tax Committee, a floor vote would have been needed to take it off the table. And that would have forced lawmakers to immediately debate the always thorny issue.

It turned out there was a debate and a vote anyway, because Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, a staunch opponent of public assistance for a ballpark, moved that the new bill be sent to the committee that tabled the first bill. To do otherwise would be to subvert the committee process, he said.

A long dispute ensued, with lawmakers disagreeing on whether it was simply a procedural move or a precursor to an ultimate ``yes'' vote on the ballpark.

``This is the vote on the Twins stadium,'' warned Rep. Gregory Davids, R-Preston. ``This is where the banana peels.''

But others of both parties said lawmakers were deprived of the chance to make a decision on the ballpark when the previous bill was tabled by the first committee. Assistant Minority Leader Sharon Marko, DFL-Cottage Grove, said she was ready to offer amendments to the bill at the time, but the vote to table ``cheated'' her and colleagues out of a thorough consideration of the measure.

Krinkie's motion lost on a 76-52 bipartisan vote, and the field was set for the new ballpark hearing Friday.

A similar bill resides in the Tax Committee of the Senate, where chances of passage likely are greater. ``We're open to all financing options at this point,'' said Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, the chief sponsor in that body.

The bill, in both chambers, requires the Twins and other private sources to pay $150 million in upfront cash for the stadium. The bills also forbid construction until Major League Baseball limits player salaries and shares more money with lower-revenue teams such as the Twins.