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If your hometown were considering building a new stadium for its baseball
team, which plan would you prefer: One that costs you just three pennies
in sales tax on every $20 purchase or one that costs $320 for every man,
woman, and child in your county?

Before you answer, consider this: They’re both the same plan.

The city in question here is Minneapolis, where the Twins’ owner, bank
tycoon Carl Pohlad, has spent nearly a decade angling for public money to
replace the unloved Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. (The Twins’ ballpark was
memorably described by Billy Martin: “I can’t believe they named someone
like Hubert Humphrey after such a dump.”) The latest idea, raising $353
million via a 0.15% sales-tax hike for Hennepin County, where Minneapolis
resides, is just the latest in a series of plans, proposals, and crazy
schemes put forth over the years to fund a new Twins stadium with public
money. In fact, it’s not even particularly new; a similar sales-tax
hike was proposed by then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton back in 1999.

What’s different about the current plan, though, is that–contrary to my
skeptical
prognostications
three weeks ago–it might actually have a shot at
getting approved. Though the state legislature closed up its regular
session on Monday without acting on a Twins bill, it also failed to pass a
state budget, which led Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty to immediately
call a special session so that the state can pay its bills this year. And
while it’s still unclear whether a baseball stadium will be on the agenda,
most local political observers think that if it is, this year is Pohlad’s
best chance yet at building a new palace largely on the public dime.

If so, it’s a pretty remarkable turnaround. The plan calls for a $478
million stadium, for which Pohlad would put up just $125 million; the
Twins’ owner could recoup much of his expenditure through the sale of
naming rights. (Handing over naming rights revenue to a stadium’s tenants
has become standard in recent years: The “private” contributions for both
the Mariners’ Safeco Field and the Brewers’ Miller Park were largely paid
for by the sale of naming rights to these public buildings.) The rest
would come from Hennepin County taxpayers, or anyone who happened to
stop for a corn dog while driving through on I-90.

This public-private split–roughly one-quarter private, three-quarters
public–runs counter to the prevailing stadium trend, which is for
teams to put up a greater share of stadium costs, as state and city
officials have become increasingly hesitant to devote scarce public funds
to building sports facilities. The St. Louis Cardinals next year will open
their latest incarnation of Busch Stadium at a cost of $387 million, more
than two-thirds of which will come from the team’s corporate pockets. Even
George Steinbrenner is pitching a stadium that, if preliminary reports are
to be believed, would be almost three-quarters privately funded–though
at an estimated $1.1 billion it would be the costliest baseball stadium
ever built (no surprise there), so the public’s bill would still come to
about $300 million.

There are several explanations for this trend, among them the late-90s
economic boom, the depletion of local government budgets, and the growing
consensus among economists that, as one memorably noted, when it comes to
promoting economic development you’re better off throwing your money out
the window of a helicopter over your city than building a sports stadium.
Another major factor is that since 2002, Major League Baseball has allowed
teams to deduct
stadium debt from their team’s finances
before calculating
revenue-sharing payments.

After some fancy bookkeeping, the upshot is that an owner can effectively
get back about 40% of whatever he puts into building a stadium by reducing
his revenue-sharing checks to the league. And you don’t have to be a rich
team to take advantage of this: If the Twins’ revenue stream remained
small in their new stadium (which they certainly hope wouldn’t be the
case), they could push their reported revenue even lower by writing off
stadium costs, and pocket even bigger revenue-sharing checks from the
league.

This helps explain why the Cardinals and Yankees, long stymied in attempts
to get stadium legislation passed, are suddenly more willing to bear a
larger share of the cost. It also explains why MLB had to drive a hard
bargain for the Nationals’ stadium in D.C., which if all goes according to
plan will be almost entirely publicly funded: Shunting costs to the other
29 teams wouldn’t help the Nationals, because their owners are the
other 29 teams.

Pohlad, though, is holding out for the sort of deal that was common in the
1990s, with the taxpayers footing the lion’s share of the bill. If he’s
successful, it will be all the more remarkable since Minnesotans have
routinely voted down stadium after stadium in public referenda.

So what’s changed? First off, the Twins removed their demands for a
retractable roof, which might leave fans shivering during Minnesota
Aprils, but also lowered the price enough that the county could front the
whole public cost without asking for state money. Last year’s move of the
Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C., may have scared local politicians —
“If we are going to maintain Major League Baseball in Minnesota, we need
to pass this bill,” declared Minnesota state Rep. Debra Hilstrom last week–though past attempts to move the Twins to North Carolina, Oregon, or
off the baseball map entirely via contraction have amounted to nothing.
And perhaps most crucially, Gov. Pawlenty backed off of his commitment to
holding a referendum on the stadium plan–something that likely would
have killed the deal, as polls show two-thirds of Minnesotans oppose
spending public money on a Twins stadium.

And then there’s that “three cents on every 20 dollars” line, which was
first coined by Mike Opat, the Hennepin County commissioner who concocted
the stadium tax, and has since been repeated by every pro-stadium
sportswriter in town. The problem is that people make a lot of $20
purchases in their lives, especially over the 30 years it would take to
pay off a Twins stadium; with about 1.1 million people in Hennepin County,
to raise $353 million it would cost $320 per resident. It just goes to
show that player agents aren’t the only ones who can get statistics to do
their bidding when big money is at stake.


RECENT BASEBALL STADIUM DEALS
Team        Opening year  Total cost   Public share   Public pct.
Padres           2004        $449m        $303m        67%
Phillies         2004        $458m        $231m        50%
Cardinals        2006        $387m        $97m         25%
Nationals        2008?       $581m        $511m        88%
Twins (proposed) 2009?       $478m        $353m        74%