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Stadium fight moves to Capitol

Lining up favors, votes for Plan B's last major hurdle

Sunday, November 08, 1998

By Peter J. Shelly and Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

HARRISBURG -- The Steelers can forget the screen pass and the long bomb. The Pirates can junk the hit-and-run and the suicide squeeze.

Starting tomorrow, the only plays that will really matter will be going on here in the Capitol, inside the plush offices of lawmakers or beneath the glistening dome. That's when Pittsburgh's two teams and their political supporters start a legislative two-minute drill that they hope will end with a score of $300 million to $325 million.

Promoters of two new stadiums for Pittsburgh are mounting an all-out lobbying blitz for legislation that would raise the state's debt ceiling by at least that much.

If the bill passes in the Legislature, Gov. Ridge can provide his promised one-third of the cost of the new facilities, or about $75 million to $80 million for each Pittsburgh stadium. Funds for two stadiums in Philadelphia also will have to be included in order to get votes from that corner of the state.

Pittsburgh stadium proponents want the legislation passed between tomorrow and the end of the session on Nov. 30, so that bonds can be sold in early 1999 and stadium construction can begin next spring. The Pirates want to be in the ground by April, with the Steelers starting construction by June.

The Legislature will be in session for no more than seven days this month, so timing is critical.

And it won't be easy. Even some legislators from Western Pennsylvania are having trouble with the idea of state funds for stadiums. State Rep. Jeff Habay, R-Shaler, has already thrown a flag on the play.

"I don't think we should subsidize $10 million-a-year athletes with taxpayers' funds," he said last week.

Habay talked to many people at a polling place Tuesday, when he won re-election, and they said they didn't want their dollars going for stadium construction.

"It's a hot issue in my district. People told me to stick to my guns and oppose the use of tax dollars for stadiums," said Habay, who heads Allegheny County's five-member GOP delegation in the House.

Another strong opponent is county Commissioner Larry Dunn, who plans to be in Harrisburg tomorrow and Tuesday to buttonhole legislators against the stadium funding.

He's written two letters to them opposing the funding, the latest going out Thursday. In it he said, "If you do decide to massively subsidize sports teams in Pennsylvania, get prepared to dole out much more money in the future. Major-league teams are notorious for coming back for more, time after time."

Many legislators haven't forgotten the regional referendum of just a year ago, when voters resoundingly rejected a half-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for those two sports palaces.

One lawmaker who's undecided on the issue is Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills. After looking at proposed leases between the teams and the Public Auditorium Authority, a city-county agency that will own the two stadiums, he said, "I don't think it's right. The taxpayers are getting a bad deal. The Pirates are giving the taxpayers nothing and the Steelers are giving them only crumbs."

He referred to the fact the leases give almost all the revenue generated from the publicly owned stadiums to the teams, not the city or county.

Yet, if the state's debt limit is going to be raised, he wants to be on board, in order to get $30 million included to put a new industrial park on the site of the failed East Hills shopping center in his district.

"If this is a go, we certainly don't want to be shut out in Western Pennsylvania," he said. "We want to bring tax dollars back here."

Also weighing in against the stadium funds is Gerald Bowyer, head of the Allegheny Institute, the Pittsburgh-based conservative think tank. He played a major role in defeating the regional sales-tax increase in last year's referendum.

Bowyer began a $4,000 campaign of ads on four Pittsburgh radio stations last week, railing against state funds for stadiums. In them he attacks county Commissioners Mike Dawida and Bob Cranmer, Pittsburgh Mayor Murphy and Gerald Voros, head of the county's Regional Asset District board, which is helping fund the stadium construction.

"In America, the people are supposed to be in charge," Bowyer says in the ad. "But Cranmer, Dawida, Murphy and (Voros) have turned 'government by and for the people' into 'government by four people."'

Bowyer and another think tank supporter are personally paying for the ads. The institute, a nonprofit, tax-exempt group, is prohibited from engaging in political lobbying. Bowyer said he might buy additional air time on radio stations in Central Pennsylvania to put pressure on legislators from that area to vote against raising the debt limit.

Commissioner Dawida can't understand how anyone from Western Pennsylvania can oppose raising the debt ceiling so that new development projects can be financed. He calls the whole issue a "no-brainer."

"It's real simple," he said. "Growth begets growth. New developments bring money into our area. They create jobs, new housing and energy.

"It's already started -- Dick's Sporting Goods headquarters in Robinson, an Italian steel mill in Munhall, a $300 million riverfront complex in Homestead. They all saw that we're putting in this infrastructure of new and exciting things that will bring people in here. That's what Plan B is all about."

Besides the $209 million baseball park and the $211 million football stadium, Plan B, a city-county development proposal, will fund a $267 million enlargement of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. In addition to the state money, funding is to come from county sales-tax revenues, the teams, the federal government, local corporations and a tax on players' salaries.

The Ridge administration has just started to work with lawmakers on a state funding plan that will pass in both chambers, so details are scarce so far. This much, however, is clear: The legislation will call for much more than $300 million in new debt.

"The governor's proposal is going to have to be broad enough to cover four stadiums and whatever else is identified as a priority project in the area in between," said David Atkinson, top aide for Senate President Pro Tem Robert Jubelirer, R-Blair.

That "area in between" covers the state east of Pittsburgh and west of Philadephia.

"You're not going to get the other parts of the state to agree to stadium financing in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia if there's nothing in the bill for them," said DeLuca, adding that York is looking for funds for a stadium to be used by a Double-A baseball team.

Some Central Pennsylvania lawmakers are certain to push for state funding for a sports arena in the Hershey area as well.

"It'd better be in there," said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, referring to the $30 million or so needed for the arena. "Otherwise, we have no particular interest in (supporting the measure)."

Several observers suggested last week that there was not much Senate opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

"There is no way then that we can accurately assess what (the teams') presence does for the economy," said Sen. Leonard Bodack, D-Lawrenceville. "We can't let them pull out of town. I am not going to let my town lose a football team or a baseball team."

In the House, it was unclear at week's end whether there was enough support for raising the debt ceiling.

"There has been no determination made yet what will happen," said Stephen Drachler, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Perzel, R-Phila.

Habay said that, so far, there hadn't been heavy lobbying, pro or con, on the stadium funding issue.

Pirates' owner Kevin McClatchy and Steelers owners Dan and Art Rooney met with legislators about four months ago and again two weeks ago, with a low-key presentation of stadium models and drawings, Habay said.

"They said, 'Here is our plan.' They were forthright, but didn't push it too hard," he said.

Art Rooney, known for his low-key style, said he might travel to Harrisburg this week or next to speak with legislators.

He said this week that the big re-election margin of Gov. Ridge, who has pledged to fight for state funds for stadiums, showed the easing of public opposition to that issue.

"I don't think (public funding for stadiums) is as unpopular as some people think," and thus much of the political risk for legislators is removed, Art Rooney said.

Dawida's planning to work the phones. He, like Murphy, is a former state legislator. "I've still got some friends there, and so does Murphy. I don't know yet exactly who we'll talk to yet."

Additional lobbying will be done by the Pittsburgh business community, he said, with such groups as the chamber of commerce, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development joining the battle.

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