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April 21, 2009 5:40 PM

Hold on to that $30 million, Clay Bennett

Posted by Jim Brunner

Sonics/Thunder owner Clay Bennett doesn't need to pull out his checkbook just yet.

A bill that would help pay for an expansion of KeyArena -- potentially leaving Bennett on the hook for a $30 million payment to Seattle -- passed the Senate Ways & Means committee over the weekend. But its fate remains cloudy as the Legislature enters the final days of the session.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, prime sponsor of Substitute Senate Bill 6116, said he gives it a 50-50 chance of passing. But he predicts it will come down to the wire. "It's a budget bill so it can hang out here til the end."

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who has worked on a similar proposal in the House, put the odds at just 30 percent.

The bill would divvy up King County taxes currently being used to pay the debt on Safeco Field, Qwest Field and the Kingdome. We're talking mainly about taxes on restaurants, car rentals and hotels.

It would let Seattle use a portion of those taxes generated in the city to help pay for a $300 million KeyArena remodel aimed at luring an NBA team to replace the Sonics. Private investors led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer have pledged to pay for half of that project if the public covers the other half.

This is why Clay Bennett and his fellow Thunder owners still have to keep an eye on what's going on here.

If the Legislature passes the public money for the arena, and the NBA doesn't come through with another team for Seattle in five years, Bennett will owe Seattle another $30 million.

That's in addition to the $45 million he already paid as part of last year's settlement to break the KeyArena lease and move the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

"I can't imagine the Legislature wants to leave $30 million in Bennett's pocket," said Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis.

SSB 6116 is far from just a KeyArena bill, of course.

It's a stadium-tax smorgasbord with a little something for everyone.

The owners of the Seattle Mariners would benefit from a permanent tax stream beginning in 2013 to pay for major maintenance projects at publicly-owned Safeco Field (such as eventually replacing the roof).

Husky Stadium could get money for its controversial remodel too, though it is not specifically named in the bill.

In an apparent effort to appease House Speaker Frank Chopp, a fierce advocate for low-income housing, the bill would create a new stream of money starting in 2021 for nonprofit developers building "affordable workforce housing" around transit stations.

(The bill's current definition of "affordable" is debatable though -- it extends all the way to households earning 120 percent of King County's median income of more than $65,000.)

There is also money for King County arts groups, youth sports, tourism promotion and an obscure new public-development agency in Seattle's Pioneer Square and International District, pushed by Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle.

And while it deals mostly with King County, the bill also would allow Yakima County to divert some state sales tax money to pay for improvements at the county fairgrounds.

Nickels' office hopes the something-for-everyone approach pays off this time.

"It's all good stuff that people want," Ceis said.

But the Legislature has rejected four previous proposals to dedicate tax money to a new or renovated NBA arena. Even if the bill gets a Senate vote, its prospects in the House are murky.

Hunter said it could prove hard to convince lawmakers to take any vote perceived as dedicating tax money to sports arenas while they're slashing and burning the state budget.

"This is not a scientific place right now, and everybody is angry about something," Hunter said.

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Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Jennifer Sullivan
Covers the state Legislature from Olympia.

Chantal Anderson
Covers the state Legislature from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Writes about the city of Seattle and local politics.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Jim Brunner
Writes about money and power from Seattle.