- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The Oregon state legislature yesterday completed its approval of a $150million ballpark financing package, capping a remarkable 72-hour political recovery and putting pressure on two rival baseball bids in the Washington area.

A successful 31-24 vote by the Oregon House yesterday moved the Major League Baseball Jobs Bill to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who already has pledged his signature. The measure includes less than half of the $350million needed for a ballpark in downtown Portland, but the ratification puts Oregon squarely ahead in the race for the orphaned Montreal Expos.

The District currently has no ballpark financing passed into law. Northern Virginia, meanwhile, has the legal ability to use ballplayer income taxes and sales taxes on ballpark-related commerce to fund construction bonds. But those bonds still require a formal repayment plan from state legislators, and Virginia baseball boosters do not intend to ask for favors from Richmond without a team formally in hand. District officials similarly have insisted on some type of conditional award of the Expos from MLB before completing site and financing work.

MLB officials, however, demanded a firm stadium plan in place, complete with significant public funding, before relocating the Expos.

Jack Evans, chairman of the D.C. Council finance committee, yesterday said no action will be taken on the city’s baseball funding in response to Portland. Evans’ sentiment was echoed by Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The council is on summer recess until mid-September.

“We’re still in the same place we were. Baseball needs to make a commitment to the best available market they have,” Evans said. “If baseball chooses to go to Portland, it’s because they don’t want to come to Washington. I and [Williams] stand ready to make this happen. That Oregon has passed a partial package is all well and good. But we need a commitment. We need baseball to stand up and say ‘yes’ to Washington. Otherwise, this is a fairly meaningless exercise.”

Virginia similarly plans no changes in its baseball efforts, said Michael Frey, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority.

The Oregon political drama rivaled anything seen in Hollywood. After a vigorous public debate lasting for months, the Oregon Senate voted down the ballpark bill by a larger than expected 18-12 margin Friday. Most of the Senate concerns, similar to those seen locally, centered on the ramifications of assisting a private entertainment enterprise amid diminished spending on social services.

The ballpark bill seeks to use income taxes from ballplayers and team executives to fund construction bonds. Such taxes typically go straight into a jurisdiction’s general fund.

When several amendments were drafted to address such concerns, including a provision that places bonding default risk solely on the private sector, five “no” votes switched to the affirmative late Saturday night. The quintet of changed votes were just enough to complete the late rally.

The approval comes perhaps just days before Oregon wraps up its longest and most difficult legislative session ever.

“Now we have something real and tangible to talk about,” said David Kahn, executive director of the Oregon Stadium Campaign. “Before there wasn’t a whole lot real to discuss.”

The rest of Portland’s funding package is undetermined but is likely to include a combination of ballpark-related sales taxes, local hospitality taxes and private money. Kahn and other Oregon boosters said the other funding elements could be in place within weeks.

“We’re a lot closer to the whole pie than most people realize,” Kahn said. “But without this $150million piece, we wouldn’t have been anywhere.”

Portland has listed seven potential ballpark site options, most of them downtown, but hasn’t settled on one. No prospective ownership group has surfaced there, though Kahn and others insist that will not be a problem should Portland land the Expos.

The Oregon approval pleased MLB officials looking for formal commitment toward a stadium, industry sources said. But MLB spokesman Rich Levin said it was still too soon to say definitively how this affects the race for the Expos. Monterrey, Mexico, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, also seek the team.

“Even if Portland gets the entire package, it’s still a far less attractive a site than Washington,” said Fred Malek, the District-based prospective owner.

Evans has softened somewhat on his previous demand to see a decision from baseball before next year, which is an election season for himself and several other D.C. Council members. But he said the longer baseball waits to make a decision “the more difficult this gets.”

Evans did express support for continuing to explore helping pay for the stadium by refinancing debt on the new Washington Convention Center. The plan, strongly advocated by Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, goes against the ballpark financing plan fronted by Williams, and has drawn angry responses from the Convention Center board.

But Evans, who controls the committee in which Williams’ ballpark bill now languishes, remains firmly opposed to reviving the gross receipts tax on large District business, even as the business community itself openly lobbies for it. The tax, a key component of the Williams bill, helped fund MCI Center’s infrastructure.

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