Ballmer's Sonics offer runs out soon
Ratcheting up the pressure on the Legislature, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Monday put an April 10 expiration date on his group's offer...
Seattle Times staff reporters
Ratcheting up the pressure on the Legislature, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Monday put an April 10 expiration date on his group's offer to pay $150 million toward a $300 million KeyArena expansion.
But Gov. Christine Gregoire and Democratic legislative leaders insisted that because the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn Thursday, it's too late to approve a taxpayer contribution to the arena project. They suggested if Seattle leaders think Ballmer's offer is so great, the city could front the public's $150 million share while the state appoints a task force to study the issue.
In a letter to Gregoire and top lawmakers, Ballmer's group said the arena plan needs to come together before the NBA Board of Governors meets April 17-18 to vote on Sonics owner Clay Bennett's request to move the team to Oklahoma City.
If no plan is in place by April 10, "we will need to go back to our other responsibilities and our offer will expire," said the letter signed by Ballmer, wireless entrepreneur John Stanton, Seattle developer Matt Griffin and Costco CEO Jim Sinegal.
Ballmer's group is offering to split the cost of a $300 million KeyArena renovation with the public. The group, backed by Ballmer's estimated $15 billion net worth, is also willing to buy the Sonics or another NBA franchise to play there. Bennett has said the Sonics are not for sale.
In an interview, Griffin said he understands lawmakers have a lot of other issues to worry about. "But in business or government, opportunities come along and they rarely come along with exactly the right timing. Great leaders figure out how to make sense out of those and take advantage of the opportunities," he said.
For the public's $150 million portion of the KeyArena project, state lawmakers are being pressured to authorize $75 million in car-rental and restaurant taxes in King County. Those taxes would not be new — they are currently devoted to paying off the debt on Safeco Field. The taxes would expire by 2016 and would have to be approved by the Metropolitan King County Council.
The other $75 million in public money would come from the city of Seattle, through admissions taxes or lease payments on KeyArena, according to the proposal.
Democrats, who control the state Senate, House and governor's office, say the proposal is more appealing than past Sonics arena plans but have refused to be pushed into moving quickly on it.
In a letter sent Monday to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims, Gregoire suggested trying again next year.
The letter suggests the state appoint a task force to examine a broader package of King County taxes that could pay for a smorgasbord of projects for the arts, education, youth sports, low-income housing, Puget Sound cleanup and a renovation of Husky Stadium — along with KeyArena.
"All these ideas have merit. Because of this we must look at how best to prioritize and decide how to fund them in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner," said the letter signed by Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
The letter suggested Seattle could commit now to cover the public's $150 million share of the KeyArena renovation with the hope that next year the state would authorize $75 million in King County taxes to essentially repay the city.
Nickels ripped the Legislature's inaction.
"In sports, when a great shot presents itself, you take it. In governing, it is called leadership," Nickels said in a statement Monday evening. "This proposal opened a window to save the Sonics and invest in the future of KeyArena as a premier place for sports, music, shows and civic events. Their failure to act represents a lost opportunity."
But Sims endorsed Gregoire's methodical approach, issuing a statement saying he agrees with the notion of "prioritizing and bundling several of the issues to provide the most comprehensive plan for our civic project funding needs."
Top Republicans, though, accused Gregoire and Democratic leaders of failing to show leadership.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi strongly endorsed the KeyArena package Monday.
"I have been skeptical about stadium plans in the past, but this is the best proposal I've ever seen in this area," Rossi said in a statement, noting the proposal would create no new taxes. "Gregoire's inaction is costing us our last, best hope to save the Sonics. She must act, and she must act now. It is possible to still do something during this legislative session."
Republican legislative leaders refused to sign Gregoire's task-force proposal, saying it amounts to dodging the issue.
"It doesn't seem genuine," said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. "They can punt without me."
DeBolt said he was not sure he'd vote for the arena proposal but added the plan was worth exploring.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, called the KeyArena proposal "a good deal" and said Democrats are making excuses when they say they don't have enough time to consider it.
"The whole notion it is too late is crazy," Hewitt said.
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Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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