Hit By Pitch

What's wrong with Pawlenty's stadium push? Everything.

Of course, it was precisely those programs that fell under the swing of Pawlenty's budget axe during the last session. In any case, Rolnick's testimony--and supporting documentation--was so unassailable that even stadium proponents on the committee were conceding that the supposed boon from ballparks was not its economic stimulus but the more nebulous notion of an improved "quality of life" for Minnesotans.

This begs the question of how one defines "quality of life" in this state. Is our overall standard of living better enhanced by sufficiently educating our children, tending to our sick, and insuring our transportation infrastructure and public safety needs, or by having the opportunity to watch a baseball game outside? Apparently, the governor believes the latter. Otherwise, he would have said that he wasn't going to let our public schools, universities, nursing homes, and safety-net hospitals be diminished on his watch, rather than drawing his line in the sand on the Twins and the Vikings leaving town.

 

Rep. Ron Abrams, a Minnetonka Republican, is among a number of legislators viewing the governor's stadium spin with skepticism
Jayme Halbritter
Rep. Ron Abrams, a Minnetonka Republican, is among a number of legislators viewing the governor's stadium spin with skepticism

Taxes, by any other name, will subsidize billionaire owners.

Having made his reputation as the politician who always says no to more taxes, Pawlenty has to claim that Minnesotans will not pay more to build the stadiums. But staunch allies of Pawlenty from the governor's own party, such as House Tax Committee Chair Ron Abrams (R-Minnetonka), couldn't let that fallacy go uncorrected. Included in the stadium bill is $100 million in state money, ostensibly gleaned through tax increment financing. This assumes that the stadiums will generate so much additional revenue that the excess dollars will be sufficient to pay off state bonds.

That revenue is far from guaranteed. Recently, the expected windfall from a stadium in Pittsburgh was not enough to cover the TIF component of its financing, forcing the state to use existing revenues to make up the difference.

Besides, using TIF to cover the cost of a ballpark is a perversion of its original intent. Tax increment financing is supposed to be used to stimulate economic development in areas that are blighted or otherwise generally unsuitable for commerce. That hardly describes the sites being proposed for ballparks. Ironically, Abrams and other state legislators recently enacted curbs on the use of TIF, after local communities (especially Minneapolis) had abused the process to the point of depriving the state of more than $30 million per year in revenue. That's why Abrams has announced that he would not vote for a stadium bill that included a TIF component.

 

It's a half-baked proposal.

Once the stadium bill was finally introduced by Rep. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring) last week, House Tax Committee members had little trouble unveiling all the holes and uncertainties it contained. Although it has generally been assumed that franchise owners Carl Pohlad and Red McCombs would contribute a third of the funding costs for their respective stadiums, the bill did not define the terms and timetable for the owners to pony up, creating great opportunities for semantic loopholes and other mischief.

(Skepticism over this matter is warranted, considering that in a past deal Pohlad's supposed contribution was revealed in the fine print to be a loan that would be repaid to him--with interest--by the public.)

The bill also gave enormous power and little oversight to a stadium authority--the majority of whose members would be appointed by Pawlenty--that would oversee the ballpark construction. Last week, Abrams criticized the governor's stadium committee for cutting and pasting together a bill that fulfilled the teams' wishes with very little critical thinking, and leaving it to the sports authority to sort out the details.

 

It smacks of political hypocrisy.

It's disingenuous of Pawlenty to posit himself as a fiscal conservative--one who slashed and burned a raft of social programs of proven merit last session and faces a billion dollars' worth of red ink in the next one--and then beat the drum for ballparks that are of no immediate need. But the governor's hypocrisy goes deeper than that, to when he was a legislator in the House.

As Senate Tax Committee Chair Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Minneapolis) points out, "prior to this year, the governor spent his entire legislative career adamantly lobbying against any stadium bills, working hard to ensure that they didn't pass. The Twins' stadium would be half-built by now if the bill we passed in the Senate two years ago hadn't been screwed by then-Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, who wanted to make sure only Minneapolis paid for it, which lost the support of the Minneapolis delegation."

Pogemiller's account is especially relevant given that Pawlenty's justification for reversing himself on the stadium issue is that he now must represent the wishes of all Minnesotans and not just the people in his former legislative district. But if stadiums are truly a statewide concern, why force Minneapolis to bear the financial burden two years ago? More to the point, why not provide a statewide funding mechanism for his current stadium scheme rather than saddle local governments with the financial burden?

The answer, of course, is that he would have to unambiguously raise state taxes to get any stadium package approved.

The next few weeks will determine how much political capital the governor is willing to expend to see this through. The DFL-controlled Senate will not take up the stadium bill until it's passed by the Republican-controlled House. Even then, Pogemiller says, last year's budget cuts have made many DFLers who have supported stadium bills in the past more reluctant to green-light one now.

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