Appearing before the Senate State and Local Government Committee, state Senator Steve Kelley, a Democrat from Hopkins, and Twins president Jerry Bell presented the latest incarnation of the bill designed to facilitate construction of a new home for Twins baseball. The bill was heard in two committees in 2005, but it did not advance prior to the legislature's adjournment in July.
The Twins are seeking legislative approval for a sales tax in Hennepin County that would be the primary funding source for a new ballpark to be built in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. If approved by the state legislature, the 15 percent countywide sales tax -- which has already been approved by the Hennepin County board -- would fund much of a $360 million open-air ballpark, scheduled to open in time for the 2009 season. The Twins will make a $125 million cash contribution toward the construction of the ballpark.
After a little more that two hours of debate, the committee approved the bill and forwarded it to the Senate Taxes Committee. Supporters hope for a hearing there and a final vote on the bill before the legislature adjourns on May 22. Bell was all smiles after the committee's vote.
"We now have had three committee hearings on this bill in the past two legislative sessions, and all have passed with pretty good majorities," said Bell. "We've never experienced that before, so we're pretty optimistic."
Supporters and detractors alike note that the bill is likely to face a much tougher path through the Senate Taxes Committee, though. One topic sure to come up at that time is the notion that the local sales tax should be put to the voters in a November referendum. One of the Senators voting against the bill on Monday, Paynesville Republican Michelle Fischbach, said that she could not support the bill unless it included a referendum.
"That could be an issue down the road," said Sen. Kelley, who is running for Governor of Minnesota. "But even some opponents of the bill testified tonight that they think a referendum could pass, so it's not a huge stumbling block."
Testifiers in favor of the bill on Monday were many, including Hennepin County officials, Twin Cities union leaders, a representative from the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the Minneapolis Chamber and locals who spoke of the Twins' contributions to area charities.
Sen. Linda Higgins, the Minneapolis Democrat who chairs the committee, also gave opponents an opportunity to testify against the bill. Most said they were in favor of getting a ballpark built but did not like this deal. Recent ballpark financing deals that included more private money -- like those in San Francisco and St. Louis -- were mentioned, and more than one opponent talked about the need for the bill to include a referendum.
Before the final vote was taken, it was mentioned that the ballpark debate has been before the legislature for nearly 10 years now, and some legislators see this as the time for real progress toward a return of outdoor baseball in Minnesota.
"The Twins have been great for Minnesota," said Owatonna Republican Dick Day, the senate minority leader. "Two world championships, they handle themselves well, they're good people. I think it's time for us to step up to the plate."