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Originally published February 17, 2012 at 2:37 PM | Page modified February 17, 2012 at 2:37 PM

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Sonics offer short on time

State legislative leaders say they're in no mood to jump at an offer by private investors — including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer...

Seattle Times staff reporters

State legislative leaders say they're in no mood to jump at an offer by private investors — including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — to pay $150 million of a proposed $300 million KeyArena expansion and purchase the Sonics or another NBA team for Seattle.

With just a week remaining before the Legislature adjourns, key lawmakers Thursday said the latest proposal is better than previous Sonics arena plans. But they said they won't rush a bill authorizing a taxpayer contribution to the project this late in the session.

"We're on a shot clock down here and it's running out," said Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes, the House speaker pro tem. "I don't see any possible way that we're going to get that much support for a bill that we haven't seen."

Aaron Toso, a spokesman for Gov. Christine Gregoire, said the governor "has not made any commitments" to Seattle officials or Ballmer's group to push the proposal this year. He added it was unlikely the governor would call a special session on the issue.

"If the plan has merit, it can certainly be pursued next year," Toso said.

Still, Nickels and other Seattle officials said they'll press legislators to take action now.

"If we took no for an answer, we wouldn't be here," Nickels said at a Thursday afternoon news conference at which he confirmed for the first time the involvement of Ballmer and other business leaders in the potential new Sonics ownership group. "This is a remarkable window of opportunity that we cannot pass up."

Even if lawmakers move swiftly, there is no guarantee the latest plan would keep the Sonics in Seattle. Team owner Clay Bennett has repeatedly said the team is not for sale. He has asked the NBA for permission to move the franchise to his hometown of Oklahoma City — a request league owners are expected to consider at a meeting next month.

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who has been hired as an attorney to enforce the Sonics' KeyArena lease through 2010, said lawmakers should help fight the move.

"I want the ability ... to go back to New York City and tell the NBA before they make this decision, 'We've got a place and we've got the people and we've got a much better city in which to play basketball,' " Gorton said. "But I can only do that if the Legislature gives us this authority now."

Asked to comment on the latest developments, NBA spokesman Tim Frank said, "Mr. Bennett has stated that the team is not for sale."

A Bennett spokesman could not be reached for comment Thursday night.

NBA Commissioner David Stern has repeatedly criticized Seattle leaders and indicated the Sonics are probably destined to leave the city. Stern and other NBA officials will tour Oklahoma City's downtown arena March 25 as part of their consideration of Bennett's relocation request.

State lawmakers are being asked to approve legislation that would allow the Metropolitan King County Council to temporarily extend restaurant and car-rental taxes now being used to pay off the debt from Safeco Field. Those taxes, collected only in King County, would raise an estimated $75 million. The remaining $75 million in public money would come from the city of Seattle, through admissions taxes or lease payments at KeyArena, according to city officials.

Ballmer's four-member investor group, which also includes wireless mogul John Stanton, Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and Seattle developer Matt Griffin, has been working with the mayor's office behind the scenes since at least December trying to budge reluctant legislators — especially House Speaker Frank Chopp — to consider a KeyArena plan aimed at saving the Sonics.

Ballmer, who joined Microsoft in 1980 and was named CEO in 2000, is clearly the big money among the investors, with a net worth estimated at $15 billion by Forbes magazine. He is known as a passionate basketball fan and had long been rumored as a potential Sonics owner.

During an interview in Las Vegas at a conference for Web developers, Ballmer wouldn't talk basketball. When asked what he'd like to see happen with the Sonics and what he was prepared to do to make it happen, he said, "I'm not talking about that today."

Stanton, who founded Bellevue-based Western Wireless and sold it for $4 billion, is worth an estimated $1.1 billion, according to Forbes. He was a former minority owner of the Sonics under the local group led by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

Griffin represented the group at Nickels' news conference Thursday and said the investors initially proposed to pay $75 million of the KeyArena expansion but doubled that to $150 million in the past couple of weeks in an attempt to get something passed this year.

While Seattle officials said action this year is crucial if the city is to keep the Sonics from moving to Oklahoma City, Griffin said his group also would be willing to pursue another NBA team if necessary.

"Obviously our preference is to have the Sonics," Griffin said. "I mean, let's face it, there is a lot of good legacy there. We think about Lenny Wilkens and Gus Williams and Detlef Schrempf and [Jack] Sikma and all those guys. We'd rather not lose that."

Griffin said one of his partners called Bennett and NBA officials Thursday to let them know the investment group was making their role public.

Despite the big money and reputation of Ballmer's group, some lawmakers said they're reluctant to take a controversial vote on public money for professional sports with no guarantee it would even save the Sonics for Seattle.

"They [Ballmer's group] don't even have a team," said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who chairs the House Finance Committee.

Brian Robinson, co-founder of the fan group Save Our Sonics, said he was disappointed at the lack of urgency in Olympia — especially from Gregoire. "I want her to take a strong leadership role and encourage this to be done this year."

Staff reporter Benjamin J. Romano contributed to this report from Las Vegas. News researcher David Turim and The Associated Press also contributed.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882.


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