Ballpark fight far from over in legislature

Sunday, May 5, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- After two years of minor skirmishes in the General Assembly, supporters of public financing for a new St. Louis Cardinals ballpark fought and won their first pitched battle last week when the Senate gave initial approval to a stadium funding package.

But the ballpark war is far from over.

The bill that emerged following 17 hours of often emotional debate is far different than the one Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, introduced.

The plan would cost the state up to $644 million over 30 years and also includes subsidies for stadiums and convention centers in Branson, Kansas City and Springfield.

While opponents are unlikely to concede that the bill in any form would be a good deal for taxpayers, the measure as it currently stands protects the state better than the original -- probably more so than Cardinals officials would like.

Of the 38 amendments offered during debate, 22 made it on the bill. Most of those aim to ensure taxpayers get the most for their investment, as well as protecting them should the promised economic returns fail to materialize.

Kinder called the bill "a work in progress," but said nothing was added that he or the Cardinals absolutely couldn't live with.

"Any reasonable and workable feature that added taxpayer accountability was something that we wanted to add," Kinder said.

The accountability provisions helped convince some senators who had been opposed to the bill, which passed 19-14 -- one vote above the minimum required.

Barring unexpected changes by two senators who initially voted their support, the plan is expected to win final Senate approval.

Though opponents will certainly spend several more hours talking about the measure, Kinder said filibusters once the amending process is over rarely succeed.

Investment or welfare?

The stadium proposal is being framed by proponents as a worthwhile economic development investment that will yield the state a substantial return. Opponents call it a financial boondoggle and corporate welfare.

The portion of the bill related to the Cardinals would cost the state $7 million a year -- $210 million total -- to retire $100 million in bonds for the new downtown St. Louis ballpark, which is expected to cost $346 million. The state's share is supposed to come from new revenue generated by the project, beginning in 2005, when the stadium would open.

The team has pledged $120 million in cash and land. Taxpayers in St. Louis city and county also would contribute.

A key selling point for the team has been the promise of an adjacent development known as Ballpark Village, which would include office space, housing, shops and entertainment facilities.

Supporters note that the state routinely invests tax dollars to attract new businesses and keep existing ones. They say the Cardinals' proposal is no different.

Opponents, like state Sen. Wayne Goode, D-Normandy, disagree. State investments in the private sector can spur economic growth, which in turn generates revenue for the state, Goode said, but only when they create new, good-paying jobs.

Retail and entertainment projects don't create new revenue, Goode said. They simply take the finite amount of disposable income people have that would otherwise be spent on something else.

Reimbursement clause

Because of the concerns raised by Goode and others, the team would be required to reimburse the state for shortfalls if the promised economic boon fails to materialize.

They would also have to pay a substantial penalty -- up to $100 million -- for failing to pursue the Ballpark Village. If the project isn't mostly completed by 2010, the team would have to pay $35 million up front and the remainder over time if the village still isn't finished.

"For this project to make any sense from the taxpayers' standpoint, the village has to be done," said state Sen. Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.

Gibbons put that provision in the bill, as well as another key change that would force team owners to share 12 percent of the profit from a total or partial sale of the Cardinals over the entire 30-year period the state is committed to the project.

Some have accused the Cardinals ownership group of wanting a new ballpark to drastically increase the value of the team and then turn a quick and substantial profit. Some of the owners did just that a few years ago with the Texas Rangers.

An earlier agreement between the state and the Cardinals called for the owners to share up to 15 percent of proceeds for selling the team, but the percentage would decrease over time with the state getting nothing after 10 years.

During the first day of debate, Kinder opposed forcing a more generous profit-sharing plan on the team, saying it was a deal breaker. He later endorsed the change.

"You get to a point where you've got to support certain things to get a bill passed," Kinder said.

Team chairman Frederick Hanser, however, indicated to The Associated Press on Friday that the Cardinals weren't happy with the taxpayer protections, hinting that they could jeopardize the project.

"We thought we had already taken care of those issues in the agreement we had," Hanser said. "We'll have to work through and see where those amendments take us economically and whether it makes it still feasible or not."

Other features

The remainder of the stadium bill, over the life of the deal, includes $294 million to upgrade the stadiums of the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs, $32 million for a convention center and arena in Branson and $18 million for a Springfield convention center.

The St. Louis Blues hockey club would get $3 million a year in perpetuity for maintenance of the Savvis Center. Since the arena is only 7 years old and not in need of a renovation, Goode said its inclusion was the worst part of the deal.

"That is like me saying I'd like to keep the property taxes on my home to maintain my property," Goode said. "You just can't run government that way. It weakens the argument that these projects pay for themselves."

However, the bar is set relatively high for the Blues to see any of that money. To get the first $2 million a year, the team would have to renovate and reopen the adjacent Kiel Opera House. To claim the remaining $1 million a year, it would have to land a National Basketball Association franchise -- something Blues' owner Bill Laurie has repeatedly tried but failed to do.

The state auditor would annually review each project in the bill to certify that the economic returns to the state meet or exceed promises. If not, state funding could be withheld.

Passage uncertain

If the bill clears the Senate as anticipated, passage is still far from certain. Though Gov. Bob Holden is a supporter, House opposition -- particularly among rural lawmakers, including most from Southeast Missouri -- is believed to be even more fierce than in the Senate.

House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa, said the lower chamber will probably take up the measure, but it isn't his top priority.

"As long as there are no pressing bills such as a revenue enhancement package or education issues, we will debate it," Kreider said.

But the clock is ticking.

Lawmakers have until midnight Friday to finish work on a compromise state budget for the coming fiscal year, and at the moment negotiations are largely at a standstill. Plus, efforts to address a $230 million shortfall in the current budget year could eat up significant time before lawmakers must adjourn for the year at 6 p.m. on May 17.

In addition to budget issues, major legislation on transportation taxes, election reform and changes in how property taxes are assessed is pending.

Kinder, however, is optimistic about the stadium bill's chances.

"I am going to work my butt off to get this done," Kinder said.

mpowers@semissourian

(573) 635-4608

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