Twins Stadium Chaos (Part 1)

Well, as a few of you loyal readers might know, I worked in the Minnesota Senate last year, and I'm back again, having moved up a few floors. We've had a lot of movement on the Twins stadium this session, and a week ago it looked like it was a done deal.

But a little background before I go too far. The original Twins Stadium bill incorporated both private and public funding, the bulk of of the funding coming from a 0.15 percent sales tax on Hennepin county. As you can imagine, both those for the stadium and against it are A) incredibly passionate and B) almost always uninformed about the relevant economic theories. There are any number of sites where you can read commentary and analysis on how ballparks can be funded, my personal favorite being the Business of Baseball report at The Hardball Times. I don't have anything blazingly original to say on that subject; I haven't discovered a secret revenue stream that ballparks create; I haven't found some seedy loophole in the negotiations. But what I can give you is an inside look on the process by which the State of Minnesota is attmpeting to pass this controvertial bill.

Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is notorious for his "no new taxes" pledge had agreed to sign the bill into law. His lack of public profile on this issue has been a matter of speculation, but the safest bet seems to be that he wants to avoid this controversy so close to his run for reelection. It was then assumed widely that once the bill passed the House on April 26th, it would sail through the Senate and the Twins would no longer be doomed to the worst stadium in all baseball.

No one saw it coming. Taxes started hearing all three stadium bills (U of Minnesota Gophers Football, Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings) on the 27th and that night in committee, everything changed. The Chair of the Tax Committee, Senator Pogemiller, announced a plan to fund the Twins Stadium with a retractable roof (which was not included in the original bill), the Vikings Stadium and various transit and highway projects with a seven county half-cent sales tax increase. The author of the original Senate Bill, Senator Steve Kelley, agreed to the amendment. This has not yet left taxes, and hasn't even been voted on, due to procedural technicalities (The Vikings bill is still in another committee, so it cannot be amended into the Twins bill).

This easily trumped the original controversey over whether or not there would be a referendum on the 0.15 sales tax increase in Hennepin county. This, however, is still an issue, as the Senate Tax Committee voted unanimously in support of a public referendum in their May 1st meeting.

Throughout the day on May 2nd, there actions were taken that further muddied the waters. After the Senate had finished everything on its slate, Senator Dean Johnson moved that the Senate go into recess rather than adjourning until the next day, which was what everyone expected. He said that the Senate would reconvene after a newly declared meeting of the Rules Committee, which he chairs.

We spent the rest of that day in speculation. Would Rules add or remove a member to the Tax Committee to break the deadlock? Would they take the bill from the Tax Committee and hear it themselves? Would it die in committee, or on a vote on the floor of the Senate.

Well, Rules did remove the bill from the Tax Committee, a version that included only funding for the Twins and had a .15 percent sales tax for Hennepin County. After that it was immediately ammended to take the Quasimodo-like form we'd seen in takes; a half-cent from the seven county metro area for the Twins and Vikings (and transit funding once both projects were paid for). The vote in committee was close, but still had breathing room. The action on the floor was a different story.

The simple procedure of adopting a committee report, an action that occurs any time a bill moves from one committee to another, turned into a firefight. If this would have failed, the bill would have gone back to the deadlock in the Tax COmmittee. The debate was fierce, with call for the subject of the vote to be clearly stated by Senator Johnson so that the media and the people of Minnesota could "know what he was up to." There were pleas for funding for homelessness, health care and education by Senators from both sides of the aisle. In the end, it survived on a 33 to 29 vote, with a number of Senators asking to be excused.

The Senate still wasn't finished. Senator Johnson recessed the Senate, and called the Rules Committee to reconvene "immediately after" recess. The Rules Committee then voted to send the new Twins / Vikings bill to the floor of the Senate, and as soon as that was done, the Rules Committee adjourned and Johnson reconvened the full Senate. Every bill requires a 'second reading,' basically the second time that a bill is formally recognized by the Senate, when it has cleared all necessary committees. This means that the bill could be voted on as soon as tomorrow.

This morning, no one thought the Twins stadium would even be voted on in Taxes, and now this bill could pass the Senate in 12 hours time. Even if it does pass, however, this story is by no means over; the Senate bill differs significantly from the House bill, and from what the Governor had promised to sign.

We've got a long way to go, sports fans, so stay tuned.

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