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March 10, 2010 at 12:30 PM

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Stadium & arts tax bill dies for sixth time

Posted by Jim Brunner

OLYMPIA -- For the sixth year in a row, a bill that would divvy up King County's multimillion-dollar bounty of stadium taxes appears dead.

That means no public money for Husky Stadium boosters trying to get a $300 million renovation done. And it brings arts groups in King County a year closer to the precipice they'll hit in 2012 when their current public funding dries up.

This dilemma all goes back to the construction of Safeco and Qwest fields, which were largely paid for with taxes on hotels, car rentals and restaurant meals in King County.

Starting in a few years, some of those stadium bonds will be paid off, potentially freeing up more than $50 million annually for other purposes.

But the Legislature is perennially unable to agree how to spend it.

Some want to limit the money to arts, low-income housing, museums and other causes. Others say it should also be available for maintenance at Safeco Field or the Husky Stadium renovation.

But whenever the talk turns to stadium funding, legislators get mad and bills die. It happened in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and almost certainly 2010.

This is the same pot of taxes the Sonics tried to tap for a new arena. You may recall how that worked out.

The latest proposal, House Bill 2912, passed the state House only after any possibility of money for college or professional stadiums was stripped out by amendments.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, has been fighting to move a version in the Senate which would allow the stadium funding.

Murray said he wants to leave the decisions up to King County instead of having the Legislature dictate everything.

His proposal was scheduled to be the last thing voted on by the Senate before a legislative cutoff last Friday. But Murray couldn't get the votes because his version of the bill would have allowed money for stadiums.

To see the anger generated by stadiums, just look at the dozen amendments to the bill drafted by Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, just in case Murray's plan ever got to the Senate floor.

One of Tom's amendments would have to steered the tax money to public transit. One demanded that professional sports stadiums make 10 percent of tickets available to the poor. Another would have denied cash for Husky Stadium if tuition for UW students went up more than 7 percent a year over the next decade.

Arts groups in King County say they're facing huge budget problems in a few years if lawmakers can't make up their minds.

"We feel like arts and heritage are being held hostage to stadiums," said Jim Kelly, executive director of 4Culture, King County's arts and culture agency.

Most legislators don't seem to have a problem with funding for the arts. But Kelly said their funding has remained tied down by its connection to the stadium fights.

"With stadiums you're damned if you do or damned if you don't," he said. "Some people, if you take the stadiums out, they won't support the bill. Other people won't vote for it if you leave the stadiums in."

Murray said he's still working the proposal to see if it can be revived in the last couple days of the session, or during the special session lawmakers now say they'll need to finish the state budget.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.