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Twins stadium bills continue their advance
Legislation might reach floor debate by the end of week
by Aron Kahn

The Minnesota Twins continued to play well on the field of politics Tuesday night, when their ballpark bills won approval in state House and Senate committees on bipartisan votes.

With one committee to go in each chamber, the bills could be debated on the floor of the two bodies before week's end.

That reality showcases a surprising turnabout at the Capitol. Only a month ago, after the bill was tabled by a House committee, the House Speaker said the measure was very likely dead. But the Twins' winning spree and call-in campaign -- the latter orchestrated from the broadcast booth -- revived interest among lawmakers.

Both ballpark measures call for the Twins and other private sources to pay $150 million in cash upfront toward construction of a $300 million ballpark, but the bills part company from there.

The Senate bill, approved on a 15-12 vote in the Tax Committee, is more generous to the Twins. It also sets up an elaborate funding mechanism: A $100 million loan would be made to the project from excess insurance reserves of the Workers Compensation Assigned Risk Plan. On an amendment offered by Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, and approved by the committee, the Twins would repay the loan with 3 percent interest. The previous version of the bill stated the loan would be interest-free.

Under the Senate bill, the ballpark also would benefit from a $40-million state grant. The money would be borrowed from the Metropolitan Council and repaid from loan payments that the Minnesota Wild are scheduled to make to the state to pay off a $48 million loan for the hockey arena in St. Paul.

A $10 million break in sales taxes on construction materials brings the total to $300 million. The finances are not dissimilar to the funding plan for the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Wild, except that the Wild did not provide cash up front.

In one other change to the Senate bill, a sales tax-free zone for the ballpark and parking facilities, estimated to save the Twins $5 million a year, was altered. Now the revenues from the sales tax would go toward operating the ballpark.

The opposition, led by Sens. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, and Kenric Scheevel, R-Preston, attempted to put even more responsibility on the Twins, but several amendment attempts were beaten back.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, goes to the Finance Committee, probably today. The Twins greatly prefer it to a measure passed Tuesday night by the House Ways and Means Committee on a voice vote and sent to the Capital Investment Committee, which may hear it today.

That bill would sell revenue bonds to raise $140 million, with the Twins paying back the money with whatever interest the bonds carried -- perhaps 5 percent. The team's loan payments would be raised through a ticket tax and rent.

The only direct subsidy to the team would be the waiver of sales taxes on construction supplies, a break already given to several large projects around the state.

Under amendments approved Tuesday night, the House bill makes the Twins responsible for the cost of issuing the bonds, and Major League Baseball responsible for debt if the Twins default.

What do the differences in the bills mean? The Twins would pay about 97 percent of the ballpark cost under the House bill, according to the chief sponsor, Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake. Under the Senate bill, the Twins would pay about 83 percent, Johnson said.

As with most cost estimates associated with the ballpark legislation, the numbers are fuzzy. For example, although $300 million is the figure used at the Capitol for a new Twins ballpark, the stadium actually might cost $350 million or more, because the host city likely will need to pay land and infrastructure costs. That contribution would raise the public's share of the expenses and lower the Twins' percentage.

Both bills require Major League Baseball to share more revenue with the Twins and other lower-revenue teams before ballpark construction bills. If that happens, ballpark construction could start next summer.

Meanwhile, an opponent of the ballpark bills issued a political threat Tuesday.

``Lawmakers should known that they can't get away with slipping a Twins stadium bill through unnoticed at the end of the session,'' Darrell McKigney, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said in a statement distributed at the Capitol. He said lawmakers who help the Twins will be singled out in the voter guides distributed by the league over the next two years.