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Stadium task force tackles a tough puzzle
by Robert Whereatt

After six years of twisting this way and that, no one has been able to solve the stadium Rubik's Cube.

Now a new task force of 18 legislators, lay members and Ventura administration officials is giving itself 2 1/2 months to figure out how to fund one or more stadiums for the Twins, Vikings and University of Minnesota football Gophers.

What makes the task all the more confounding is trying to figure out what funding formula, if any, would pass muster with Gov. Jesse Ventura, a laissez-faire kind of guy who pledged during his 1998 campaign that he would not use tax dollars to subsidize a new stadium.

The governor has sent mixed messages. Yes, there's the campaign pledge, but some user fees might be acceptable, he has indicated.

"I can support anything that doesn't affect my budget," he told reporters earlier this month.

Most state revenues flow to the state's general fund, the big pot of money that pays for the state's share of education, welfare and many other programs. That's where the governor's budget is centered.

Money there already?

So if user taxes are OK, does that mean the sales tax on tickets to professional sports games can be earmarked for a stadium? Well, those so-called user taxes, paid only by those attending the games, now go to the general fund.

How about the sales tax on food and drinks at stadium events, another user tax paid only by those attending? Those revenues, too, now go to the general fund.

The same is true of the 6.5-percent state sales tax paid on restaurant meals, parking, car rentals and lodging -- all potential targets for stadium funds. Some proposals would increase the sales tax for certain products or services, earmarking the increase for the stadium while retaining the 6.5 percent for the stte's general fund.

What about earmarking the state income taxes now paid by Twins players and visiting players? Those also go to the general fund.

Last season, the Twins, with a player payroll of about $27 million, paid about $945,000 ian Minnesota income taxes for the 81 home games, according to Twins President Jerry Bell.

Visiting teams, with an average player payroll of $63 million, paid about $2.2 million in Minnesota income taxes during the 2001 season. That tax is assessed against visiting players for the portion of their salaries earned while playing 81 games in the Metrodome.

State sales tax on concessions for Twins games was about $819,000, based on an average purchase of $7 a fan, according to Bill Lester, executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission.

The total, close to $4 million just for Twins activities, goes to the state general fund. The Vikings also generate income and sales taxes to the state, and Gophers football generates sales taxes.

Would Ventura be willing to redirect those funds to pay off stadium bonds, understanding that without a team no taxes would be generated?

"I don't think he's ever been asked that specific question," said Dean Barkley, state planning director and one of Ventura's appointees on the task force.

"First you'd have to convince him that if a stadium were not built that these revenues would be lost to the general fund. I think they're still open questions," said Barkley. "I don't know where he'd come down on it."

Gambling on the future

Ventura has said several times that he would favor legalizing gambling on sporting events -- bookmaking -- and taxing it as a method of getting funds for a stadium. It's against federal law, but the governor has said he believes the state would win in court.

There are bills before the Legislature that would authorize a state-run casino. Profits would be available for American Indians, mainly from northern tribes who have not benefited from Indian-owned casinos nearly as much as tribes nearer the Twin Cities. Profits presumably also would be available for stadium payments or other uses.

Ventura has not publicly taken a position on those bills, Barkley said, adding, "I've never heard the governor shoot that one down."

The governor also has proposed a 10-cents-a-paper tax on the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The papers, he contends, benefit from professional sports so they should help pay for a stadium.

The task-force members, meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday, will pick up the Rubik's Cube once again. They'll hear from New Ballpark Inc., city officials from St. Paul and Minneapolis, and legislators who have stadium bills pending. Seven more meetings are tentatively scheduled. The task force hopes to make its recommendations to the 2002 Legislature, which convenes Jan. 29.

As it tackles the issue anew, Major League Baseball owners were planning to meet Tuesday in Chicago -- possibly to name the teams targeted for elimination. The owners had voted Nov. 6 to eliminate two teams -- believed to be the Twins and Montreal Expos. Meanwhile, litigation in Minnesota could force the Twins to field a team next season to fulfill the final year of their Metrodome lease.