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Ventura stadium plan: If you want it, donate your rebate
by Conrad deFiebre and Robert Whereatt

Gov. Jesse Ventura is challenging Minnesotans who want new professional sports stadiums to "put your money where your mouth is" by voluntarily giving their tax rebates to a state fund that he will establish just for that purpose.

Ventura, an outspoken critic of spending the state's general fund money on pro stadiums, announced the initiative Friday during his weekly radio show. The proposal combines a potential source of more than $1 billion with a de facto opinion poll of nearly every state taxpayer, and Ventura said he's completely serious about it.

"Some folks have said to me: 'Spend the surplus on a stadium,' " he said. "Now you can do it of your own free choice. . . . This is democracy at its finest."

The sales-tax rebate, worth about $1.25 billion to $1.3 billion and to be sent to taxpayers in August or September, comes from the state's budget surplus. "The money's already in place," Ventura said, adding that if even 10 percent of the rebate was donated, it would provide the $110 million state share sought under St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman's stadium proposal.

Possible beneficiaries of Ventura's plan -- the offices of the Twins, Vikings and Twin Cities' mayors -- reacted guardedly.

"I don't want to call it clever, but if people want to help, they can," Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton said. "I don't know how much money the fund will generate, but it will be an indication of the public's interest in the stadium issue."

Sayles Belton, a DFLer who recently unveiled a proposal for a Minneapolis riverfront baseball park to be funded by a half-cent Hennepin County sales tax, said she would return part of her rebate check to the new state account "as long as the stadium's in Minneapolis."

Not a giver

Ventura told his radio audience that he didn't plan to give any of his money to the fund. But he said later at a news conference that he might change his mind before June 30, 2000, the date when whatever is collected would be applied to a stadium project or, if no proposal goes forward, returned to donors.

It remained unclear Friday who would control disbursements from the fund and how money might be divided among competing Twins and Vikings proposals.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, however, said that should be no problem because, in his view, the fund is unlikely to grow too large.

"I'm not opposed to the idea, but I'm certainly not anticipating that there will be millions of dollars," he said.

Most Minnesotans will spend their rebate checks on their children or themselves, Sviggum added. "If they contribute, it will probably be to their school or church, certainly before giving it to state government for a stadium," he said.

Ventura wouldn't predict how much might be collected, and he identified only one probable contributor -- "the mayor of St. Paul -- that check'll be flying in here."

Coleman, a Republican, couldn't be reached for comment Friday, and his spokesman, Erich Mische, was noncommittal about Ventura's plan. Coleman's proposal for a $330 million stadium in St. Paul calls for a half-cent citywide sales tax to be voted up or down in a referendum this fall.

"It's great that the governor is continuing to talk about how we need to keep a community asset [the Twins] here in Minnesota," Mische said. He labeled Ventura's initiative as "encouraging," but added: "We're not going to hang our hats on it."

Twins president Jerry Bell and Vikings general manager Tim Connolly declined to comment on the voluntary fund.

"Right now there's a lot of activity by the policymakers in the city, the county and the state," Connolly said. "We're going to sit back and let them do their job."

Details not set

Details of Ventura's plan still are being worked out by his staff.

"We don't want anyone to send anything right now," Ventura said. "We are not ready for it right now."

He said solicitations for the fund would be mailed with rebate checks, but potential donors shouldn't return the checks. Instead, they should deposit them and write personal checks for all or part of their rebate as a stadium contribution, he said.

The donations aren't limited to rebates; anybody -- including corporations -- can send as little or as much as they want, Ventura spokesman John Wodele said.

The plan is reminiscent of Ventura's public appeal for donations to his transition effort after his election in November. That drew more than $113,000, which later was returned to contributors when state money became available for the transition.

While some officials privately scoffed at Ventura's stadium idea Friday, the governor said: "I'm not making fun here. This is truthfully serious. It's a way for stadium supporters to build a stadium that does not impact on people who don't support it. . . . It's your choice whether or not you want to pay for a stadium. . . . It's totally volunteer, so no one can complain. . . .

"This will show what level people all over Minnesota want to participate in the stadium issue," he added. "I've run into no negatives yet from people I've discussed it with."

An early endorsement of Ventura's idea came from Denise in Blaine, a caller to Ventura's "Lunch with the Governor" on WCCO Radio.

"I think it's an excellent idea," she told him. "It's very fair. Only you would think it up."