Twins stadium supporters take their turn at bat

Outside the hearing
Twins stadium supporters displayed this sign outside the committee hearing Wednesday afternoon.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The first committee hearing on the stadium proposal resembled game day for the Twins. Supporters of the ballpark handed out baseball caps, t-shirts and buttons to those entering the hearing.

The Twins also delivered miniature baseball bats to some committee members. Each bat said, "Take the bat off your shoulder and swing." That message comes from an organization that has struck out repeatedly over the past decade in its efforts to get a new stadium.

Twins stadium
Artist sketch of the proposed Twins stadium.
Courtesy HOK

But the team and Hennepin County think this may be their year. Twins Sports President Jerry Bell told the House Taxes Committee the Hennepin County sales tax is their best proposal yet.

"After all of the various proposals that we have brought before you, we can't think of anything other than this that will get the job done. If not this, then we rhetorically ask the question, 'What would do it?'" said Bell.

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The proposal would allow Hennepin County to enact a .15 percent sales tax, which amounts to 3 cents for every $20 spent. Twins owner Carl Pohlad would provide $130 million for the 42,000 seat stadium. Gov. Pawlenty and legislative supporters of the proposal have stepped up their efforts.

Pawlenty urged listeners of a popular morning radio program to contact their lawmakers and ask them to support the bill. Later in the day, Pawlenty warned that a recent court ruling would allow the Twins to leave the Metrodome at the end of this season.

"We have to find a way to address this issue and get a stadium built in Minnesota, or we're going to lose the Minnesota Twins," said Pawlenty. "Regardless of what you think of the policy issues underneath it, that would be bad for our state, so I'm encouraging our legislators to pass the bill."

This issue sucks all the oxygen away from all of the other legislative proposals that come before it.

Arguments like that, along with a proposal that does not include state taxpayer money, seem to be working. Several opponents of the proposal say they don't have the votes to defeat the measure in committee, and are worried it could pass the full House as well.

Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, says she's upset that the sales tax would only be applied in Hennepin County. Lenczewski's district is in Hennepin County, and she says she'll push to fund the stadium with state dollars. If that doesn't work, she says she'll urge her colleagues to require voter approval of the sales tax.

State law requires a referendum on any local sales tax, but the Twins and Hennepin County are against it. Lenczewski says lawmakers from Hennepin County are far outnumbered by legislators from other areas, which makes her pessimistic about blocking the stadium proposal.

"It makes 86 counties' legislators not accountable for this vote. They get to have a stadium, and they get to tax someone that they don't represent to build it. So their constituents get a stadium and don't have to contribute to it," said Lenczewski.

Others say stadium fatigue is playing a part in the Twins momentum.

"This issue sucks all of the oxygen away from all of the other legislative proposals that come before it," says Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. "It just takes up so much time. I think that's a factor. ... we've had this issue in front of the state for a decade now."

Thissen says he'll support efforts to include a referendum on the sales tax, but will vote for the stadium even if those attempts fail.

The fatigue issue worries some of the more vocal opponents of public financing for sports stadiums. Critics say Twins owner Carl Pohlad, a billionaire, can pay for the stadium himself.

Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Lino Lakes, who chairs the House Taxes Committee, opposes any taxpayer funding for sports stadiums. Krinkie says he senses that the issue has worn down his colleagues in both the House and Senate.

"I've always felt that legislators are reflective of their constituencies. They are reflective of the views of Minnesotans and I think, yes, there is some stadium fatigue on the public's behalf," said Krinkie. "I think they say that this issue should be over or it should be done. Maybe this is the year. I don't know."

Krinkie says he'll also push for a referendum at the committee meeting Thursday night. The hearing was initially scheduled to allow only stadium opponents to testify but Krinkie now says supporters will also be allowed to speak.

Krinkie says his committee will vote Thursday night at the earliest.