State lawmakers have repeatedly rejected requests for taxpayer money to build a new place for the Seattle Sonics to play. Given that track record, is there any reason to think things will be different when the city comes back to the Legislature next year with yet another pitch to renovate KeyArena?
OLYMPIA — Here we go again.
Over the past four years, state lawmakers have repeatedly rejected requests for taxpayer money to build a new place for the Seattle Sonics to play.
They said no when the city and Sonics’ former owners, led by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, sought more than $200 million to expand KeyArena. They said no when new owner Clay Bennett asked for $300 million for a new arena in Renton. And they said no this year when local investors offered to buy the Sonics or another team if the state and city would pay half the $300 million cost of renovating KeyArena.
Given that track record, is there any reason to think things will be different when the city comes back to the Legislature next year with yet another pitch?
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“I’m kind of surprised they dumped it back in our laps,” House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said about Wednesday’s legal settlement that allows the Sonics to leave Seattle immediately. “That hasn’t been a very successful model so far.”
Under the settlement, Bennett agreed to pay the city $45 million in exchange for letting the team break its KeyArena lease and fly away to Oklahoma City. The city, which gets to keep the Sonics name, and a group of local investors led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will now start looking for a new NBA franchise.
But the agreement has an added twist that puts the ball back in the Legislature’s court.
The city will receive another $30 million from Bennett if it persuades the Legislature to put up $75 million toward an arena renovation by the end of next year but then fails to land a new team within five years.
Some legislative leaders remain unenthusiastic, or at least skeptical, about an arena-financing deal. That mood could be compounded by the potentially huge budget shortfall the state faces next year. Meanwhile, there is a long line of groups angling for the same tax dollars that the city and Sonics have been seeking to tap.
“It’s way too early to tell,” said Marty Brown, chief lobbyist for Gov. Christine Gregoire. “Everything would be speculative at this point.”
But House Finance Chairman Ross Hunter said the city is working on a new funding proposal that he thinks will be more palatable to lawmakers. The new plan relies on taxes collected entirely within the city, said Hunter, D-Medina.
Under past proposals, the city and Sonics were seeking legislative approval to tap King County taxes on car rentals and restaurants — money now being used to pay off the debt on Safeco Field.
After shooting down the latest proposal this year, Gregoire and legislative leaders agreed to set up a task force to examine a broader package of King County taxes that could pay for projects for the arts, education, youth sports, low-income housing, Puget Sound cleanup and a renovation of Husky Stadium — along with KeyArena.
That task force will hold its first meeting this month.
But Hunter, who has been briefed by Seattle officials, said the city is now eyeing a different pot of money.
For years the state has collected a hotel and motel tax to help pay off the debt on the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. Those collections exceed what is needed for the convention-center debt, Hunter said.
Hunter said the city’s plan is to shift a tiny portion of that money to Seattle Center for improvements not related to KeyArena. That presumably would free up other money for the arena renovation.
Such a shift would require legislative approval.
Alex Fryer, spokesman for the city, confirmed the city wants to tap the hotel and motel taxes.
Hunter, who has not supported previous proposals, said he thinks the new plan has a better chance in Olympia because it’s not just a “taxpayer subsidy for professional basketball.”
He said he thinks lawmakers will be more open to helping the city tackle an obvious financial problem — “an empty building that bleeds money.”
Regardless of where the money comes from, however, next year will be a tough time to be asking the Legislature for favors. Lawmakers are facing a shortfall in the next two-year state budget cycle that could top $2.7 billion.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said she didn’t think the chances of securing funding would be any better this coming session than the last one.
“I think there are still a lot of unanswered questions,” said Brown, D-Spokane. “It’s hard to see where the momentum will come from.”
In the past, the city and Sonics owners often waited until very late in the legislative session to come forward with their proposals. Kessler said the city should start working now if it wants to whip up enough support to have a chance next year.
“They need to get out there and convince taxpayers this is the best use for that money,” Kessler said.
Kessler also worries that Wednesday’s settlement between the city and the Sonics does not provide enough assurance that Seattle will get another team.
“It seems like they could have had a settlement that said, ‘You get a stadium built and we’ll get you a team,’ ” Kessler said. “We could kind of be buying a pig in a poke.”
Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this story.
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com