Some of Spokane’s famously frugal fiscal conservatives found themselves with some explaining to do after voting to build the Seattle Mariners a $320 million stadium.
“I spent about three hours on talk radio today with people beating on me,” Rep. Todd Mielke, R-Spokane, chairman of the House Republican Caucus, said Monday.
“I’ve got a few people who are extremely upset. They left expletives on my answering machine.”
Said Rep. Larry Crouse, R-Spokane: “I’ve had a number of, shall we say, conversations with businesses today. They said, ‘Larry, this just doesn’t sound like you.”
For Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, even the home front isn’t safe: “One of my worst detractors on this is my wife. She’s a baseball fan, but she doesn’t think this is something the state should be doing.”
Twelve of 15 Spokane-area lawmakers said before they left for Olympia last week for a special session on the stadium that they would vote no on the new ballpark.
But most of them voted for a plan Saturday that includes about $4 million a year in state sales tax credits for 20 years, with the amount rising with inflation; creation of up to four sports-theme lottery scratch games, and tax increases in King County.
The plan raises $275 million in public funds for the stadium. Team owners contribute $45 million to the deal.
Lawmakers argue state money spent on the stadium is either spent voluntarily by voters who gamble, or money the state would have lost anyway if the Mariners left town.
The team is estimated to generate about as much in revenue as the state will contribute in tax credits.
Some critics argue the spending plan still takes state money away from other programs because the new scratch games will reduce a finite pie of gambling money.
“It’s a cut in the general fund, no doubt about it,” said Rep. Dennis Dellwo, D-Spokane, who voted against the plan.
About $28 million was raised last year for the general fund by the 22 existing scratch games.
“Whether five years from now these new sports-theme scratch games will continue to make money we don’t know,” said Richard Paulson, a state lottery spokesman. “But there is a lot of interest right now in the Mariners and building a new stadium.
“We believe these games will create new revenue.”
The financing plan banks on projections that the scratch games will generate more than $3 million a year for the next 20 years. Mielke defended the stadium deal Monday.
“We said we wouldn’t raise taxes to pay for the stadium, or take it out of the state reserve fund, or raise spending limits set by Initiative 601, and we stayed true to that.”
Crouse said he didn’t give the Mariners anything he wouldn’t give any other business in dire straights. “This was a tax cut, and that’s something we have given other businesses to keep them here, and which I would like to give all businesses.”
Team owners said they would put the team up for sale Oct. 30 without an agreement for a new stadium. Owners said they no longer could afford to keep the team in Seattle without a new stadium to attract fans.
Some groused that owners and King County never should have let the situation get so bad in the first place.
“Sports has gotten into a bad habit and so have we: we give away the store,” Prince said.
King County has given the Mariners and Seahawks $50 million in concessions over the past 10 years, with the Mariners getting the lion’s share, said Councilman Pete von Reichbauer.
Even when the team is hot, King County still doesn’t come out ahead of the game. “We make more on 11 home games played by the Seahawks than the 81 games played by the Mariners,” von Reichbauer said.
The original stadium plan offered by Gov. Mike Lowry and legislative leaders also was a sweetheart deal, legislators decided.
It spent the same amount on the new stadium, but also gave King County the authority to raise local taxes high enough to pay for $170 million in Kingdome repairs and enhancements.
A $20 million direct hit to the state general fund also was included to kick-start the project.
Lawmakers killed that part of the deal and cut both the sales tax credit and local taxing authority to leave only enough money to build the new stadium. No improvements or repairs to the Kingdome are covered by the plan.
King County voters rejected a proposed sales tax increase in September that would have paid for a new stadium and repairs and improvements to the Kingdome.
Whether council members will adopt a financing plan now that raises not one, but three taxes, all without voter approval, is unclear. If not, the deal falls through.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Gov. Mike Lowry will sign the stadium bill into law today at a Seattle elementary school. The King County Council will consider the plan this week. Budget Committee Chairman Peter von Reichbauer has tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the plan in Seattle Wednesday. A vote by the King County Council is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 23. A final plan must be agreed to by Oct. 30 or the Mariners’ owners say they will sell the team. Source: Associated Press, staff research