While the Seattle Mariners carried their pennant hopes to Cleveland, legislative efforts to approve financing for a new $320 million ballpark struck out Thursday night at the state Capitol.
Conservatives in the Republican-dominated state House of Representatives pulled the plug on a plan that involved limited use of state taxes to help finance construction bonds. Senate Republicans also balked at the plan that Democratic and GOP leaders had drafted with Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry.
That plan was a mix of existing state revenue and tax credits, a sports lottery and local-option tax increases in King County.
Senate Republicans countered with a plan that would allow King County to boost the local sales tax by as much as .15 percent, along with assorted other local tax options. The county council could pass the tax increases or submit them to public vote.
“It’s King County’s problem and they ought to deal with it,” said Sen. Alex Deccio, R-Yakima, new plan sponsor. “So many legislators, particularly from Eastern Washington, are concerned about use of state dollars. That is the reason for the big opposition (to the original plan).”
Little went smoothly after lawmakers convened Thursday in special session, then immediately began dissecting the plan to keep the Mariners in Seattle. By early evening, they had adjourned for the day.
Mariners owners, who have lost an estimated $67 million in the last 3-1/2 years in the concrete-roofed multipurpose Kingdome, say they’ll put the team on the market if the state doesn’t commit by Oct. 30 to build a baseball stadium with a retractable roof and luxury boxes.
Last month, King County voters narrowly rejected a local sales tax increase to finance the new ballpark and Kingdome improvements demanded by the Seattle Seahawks football team.
The Mariners, tied 1-1 with the Indians, play the third game of their American League championship series Friday night in Cleveland.
House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, had helped craft the original proposal but found little support in his caucus Thursday.
“Having state dollars as part of the plan is very hard to overcome,” he said. “Removing that gets rid of a very big obstacle.”
Peter von Reichbauer, county council finance chairman, said if lawmakers insist on requiring full local financing, they should give the county “the broadest possible menu” of tax options.
A shaken Senate Majority Leader Marc Gaspard, D-Puyallup, and House Minority Leader Marlin Appelwick, D-Seattle, stopped short of declaring the original tax plan dead, but complained that their Republican colleagues were derailing a proposal negotiated in good faith.
After Senate Minority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, produced only six votes from his 24-member caucus, Gaspard abruptly canceled plans for a Senate vote Thursday night. Gaspard had pledged to produce 13 of his 25 members, meaning 12 GOP votes would be needed for Senate passage.
“We’re back to ground zero,” he said. “I’m certainly disappointed.”
It was no better in the House. Appelwick said between 18 and 25 Democrats backed the plan, meaning nearly half of the Republicans would have to join. Vote-counters said there were probably no more than 35 or 40 votes, tops, in the House, where it takes 50 votes to pass a bill.
The Democrats’ reason for wanting a strictly bipartisan vote, Appelwick said, was so neither party could use it as an election issue next year.
Gaspard said if lawmakers cannot forge a new proposal - or pick up enough votes for the original one - the session should be dissolved. Leaders could be left behind to continue negotiating and a new session could be called if the talks produce an acceptable new plan.
Lawmakers were asked to dip into the state surplus for $20 million, donate some sales tax receipts to the project and give King County local taxing authority to raise its share of the tab.
Under the original plan, the state and county would each pony up $127.5 million, with the Mariners adding $45 million in cash.
Both houses held public hearings Thursday, where testimony ran heavily in favor of the plan.
Lowry headlined a noon rally of stadium supporters on the Capitol steps and later personally pitched the proposal at the hearings.
“Saving the Mariners is a winner for the entire state of Washington,” he told several hundred fans who chanted the M’s new rallying cry “Refuse to Lose!”
“It is a family-value issue,” the governor said, borrowing a favorite slogan of the Republicans. “Everyone is coming together on this.”
But even as he was speaking, leaders in both parties said there was little consensus. Some Seattle liberals who fear the Mariner bailout would endanger funding for education and social programs have joined with conservatives who oppose a government solution to the Mariners’ woes.
“People want the Mariners to stay; they don’t want the government to do it,” said Rep. Joyce Mulliken, R-Ephrata, a leader of the conservative opposition.
Support for the plan drops precipitously outside the Puget Sound counties near the stadium, she said.
“They are called the Seattle Mariners, not the Washington Mariners,” she said.
The ultimatum had many legislators grumpy.
“People feel jammed,” Ballard said. “This is one of the biggest issues we’ve ever voted on in this state - $300 million is a lot of money. And they say we’ve got to do it in two weeks or they’ll leave the state. And the Legislature is being asked to do it in 24 or 48 hours.”
xxxx THE MARINERS SESSION A quick look at the special session called to approve a new ballpark for the Seattle Mariners: Issue - Should lawmakers authorize financing plan for a $320 million ballark for the Mariners? Action - A plan proposed by top leaders and governor was at least temporarily sidelined. It would have allowed use of existing state revenue and a new sports lottery game; several local tax increases would be authorized if the Metro King County Council desired. Mariners would pay $45 million. The plan also would permit additional local taxes to finance $170 million in Kingdome repairs and amenities sought by Seattle Seahawks. Senate - Senators held a hearing on the bill, met in closed-door party caucus meetings, and recessed until today. House - Members met in caucuses, held a hearing and recessed until today. - Associated Press