There they go again

The Mariners have given the county easy cover for another bailout.

This is the best they could come up with? A patently phony "legal dispute" over who's supposed to pay for the stadium overruns?

So it seems. But the fact that the Mariners' owners are making some pretty far-fetched arguments is, of course, no reason to imagine that the team won't succeed in extracting another $60 million from King County taxpayers.

While the King County council members who brought us this mess are now falling all over themselves to declare that the Mariners will get no more public money, check in again a few months down the road, when the spanky new stadium opens, tempers cool, and (with any luck) Mariner bats get hot. The politicians will no doubt be more in a mood to come around, as they always have. Indeed the "legal dispute" that the Mariners have ginned up could ultimately serve as a convenient cover for another decision to give in, once more, to John Ellis and friends.

The Mariners' gambit rests on an "interpretation" of certain phrases that everyone—including the team owners—recognizes to be at odds with what legislators, the media, and the public took those phrases to mean. The stadium legislation, passed in Olympia back in 1995, says that King County "shall issue bonds, in an amount determined to be necessary by the public facilities district [or PFD], for the district to acquire, construct, own and equip the baseball stadium." The PFD did, in fact, come up with an amount of bonds that it deemed necessary to build the stadium—indeed it was an amount that the Mariners' owners specifically insisted on: $336 million. The Mariners, in turn, pledged to pay $45 million and pick up whatever costs exceeded the stadium's $417 million budget.

But now, the Mariners are arguing, with the stadium running $100 million over budget (and counting), those bonds have been insufficient to build the stadium, and so the county is obligated to sell more.

King County council member Rob McKenna believes the Mariners have indeed uncovered an ambiguity in the law. The stadium statute, he notes, does not specifically say whether the county is supposed to issue bonds only once to meet the project's original budget (as everyone assumed), or is supposed to continue issuing bonds as that budget inflates.

How much more is the county obliged to contribute? Here the team's argument is even more novel. Right now, a special restaurant/bar tax along with general sales taxes are earmarked to pay off the stadium bonds. That money is coming in ahead of early projections, so there is more revenue being collected than is necessary to pay the debt service. State law, and the bond covenants, clearly states that any excess revenue from these sources is to be used to retire the bonds early (thereby saving the taxpayers some interest costs).

The law limits the county to selling only as many bonds as its revenues can reasonably support. But the team argues that the county is somehow legally obliged to sell the maximum amount of bonds that the revenues could possibly support. In this case, they think that's another $60 million worth. "You will not find any precedent for that notion," says McKenna. "It's quite an amazing bit of legal creativity."

McKenna believes that the Mariners will have to pursue their case in court. "There is not a single person on the county council who is going to vote to give another dime in public financing for the stadium," he says. "The political argument is over. They're going to have to take us all the way to the state Supreme Court and get a writ requiring us to issue bonds, because we will not issue the bonds voluntarily."

But that's today. The Mariners' owners, of course, have plenty more stratagems up their French-cuffed, monogrammed sleeves, such as threatening to dump Griffey or Rodriguez, for example, or the most potent weapon of all: bankruptcy, which would allow them to break their lease and move the team. "That's when you'll see the politicians knees turn to jelly," says Kris Sundberg, a Mercer Island attorney who has been active in the movement to resist taxpayer-financed stadiums.

Sundberg disagrees with McKenna's contention that this latest gambit by the Mariners presents purely a "legal" question, not a political one. On the contrary, he argues, the Mariners can only win their "legal" battle if the politicians make it happen.

In Sundberg's opinion, "there is no legal basis for the Mariners to force King County to [issue more] stadium bonds." But Sundberg notes that the state courts have consistently deferred to state and local politicians on these issues. Throughout this whole multi-stadium saga—even as lawmakers handed out huge public subsidies to private sports teams; arranged for special, privately financed stadium elections; and declared legislative "emergencies" that shut out citizen participation—the judges have found no constitutional quarrel with any of it, despite numerous lawsuits, led by Sundberg and others.

Sundberg believes that the judges, who are elected officials themselves, will likewise defer to the King County council on this latest stadium dispute. If the politicians say "no more money" and mean it, "the courts will undoubtedly back them up," he says. "But if the politicians want to give more money, the judges will find a way to go along with it."

Indeed the Mariners' "legal" claim could serve as a very handy pretext for the county to give in to the Mariners' demands, long before the courts make a ruling. It is not hard to imagine—especially after a few intoxicating sunny afternoons at the spectacular Safeco Field—that the Mariners' position will begin to seem more understandable, the statutes will be deemed unclear, and the county will decide that, instead of undertaking years-long litigation, a compromise would be more in the community spirit. After all, new bonds could be issued without a single county resident paying a single cent more in taxes.

In baseball, anything can happen.

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