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New, retooled stadium plan revs up
Bill would eliminate much public funding
by Aron Kahn

A flurry of brokering and deal-making Thursday night set the stage for a new, politically shrewd Minnesota Twins ballpark bill that relieves the public of much of its responsibility for financing a Twins home and makes Gov. Jesse Ventura a major player in its construction.

The question is, will the trade be good for the Twins?

In a ``delete everything'' amendment expected to be proposed today in the House Tax Committee by an influential member of the Republican leadership, the ballpark would lose its controversial no-interest loan and sales-tax-free zone, but perhaps gain a new, albeit cautious supporter in Ventura.

If all the bases are covered.

Under the amendment, to be proposed by assistant majority leader Dan McElroy, R-Burnsville, the governor would decide whether Major League Baseball has done enough to help the Twins and other lower-revenue teams compete.

In all its incarnations this year, the bill has included a requirement that baseball share more revenue with its have-not teams and limit the astronomically rising salaries of players around the league. The average player salary this year, for example, is roughly $2 million.

Until today, the bill designated a panel of three retired state judges to evaluate whether baseball has done enough to correct its financial inequities -- a fail-safe point where stadium construction either proceeds or fizzles. Under the amendment, which is expected to pass, that decision would be made by the governor, upon the advice of the judges and the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy.

Ventura has stated repeatedly that one of his major concerns is the inequity among the teams. Now, he would be the Solomon of decision-makers, judging whether enough democracy has permeated baseball to warrant a new Twins stadium.

Team owners will discuss changes in revenue sharing this year, while they try to cap salaries in a new contract with players.

Two bill elements supported by the Twins -- the tax-free zone and a $140-million, no-interest loan -- would be eliminated, under the amendment. The tax-free zone was estimated to save the Twins about $5 million a year. The no-interest loan rankled many legislators and also opponents outside the Capitol.

Instead of the interest-free loan, the state would sell revenue bonds to raise the $140 million and the Twins would pay back the money with whatever interest the bonds carried. The state's high credit rating would insure a low rate of perhaps 5 percent.

``This puts it all on the Twins' shoulders,'' said Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake, the bill's chief sponsor, who supports the amendment.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said the amendment makes the bill more acceptable to him. Sviggum has opposed publicly assisted stadiums, but recently softened as the public's enthusiasm for the team, stoked by its winning spree and public relations campaign, intensified.

Ventura, though a longtime opponent, has continued to say he'll keep his mind open. On Thursday, he said in an interview on KFAN Radio that he wants to see the tax-free zone and interest-free loan eliminated, and that the bill would look more appealing under those circumstances.

As for the competition among cities to get the stadium, the amendment has the potential of favoring Minneapolis over St. Paul because it says the state commissioner of trade and economic development will make the selection. The current commissioner is Rebecca Yanisch, a Minneapolis resident and former head of that city's development agency.

Should the amendment be approved today, a referendum on the issue may not be needed, McElroy said, because the public's financial exposure would be greatly reduced. He had said Tuesday that he would likely amend the bill to include a nonbinding referendum, and added Thursday night he might still try to include it if the new amendment should fail.

As for the Twins, team president Jerry Bell met with key House members Thursday night over the changes, but said he needed time to study them.

If the bill passes the entire House, it would be negotiated with the Senate, assuming a bill passes in that chamber, also. The Senate has appeared to be more amenable to helping the Twins, and could be persuaded by the team that it needs more assistance than the House seems willing to offer.

A bill sits in the Senate Tax Committee while its supporters there await House committee action. Another House committee -- Ways and Means -- probably will hear the bill after the Tax Committee.

The bills in both bodies require the Twins and other private sources to pay $150 million in upfront cash for the ballpark before any assistance is given.

It's almost certain that some differences between the House and Senate would need to be hammered out in an end-of-session conference committee, should the bills get that far.

And then there's the governor's signature. Will anointing him the chief decision-maker help win his support?

Never assume, as he likes to say.