As Major League Baseball steps up negotiations with Northern Virginia over relocating the Montreal Expos, a key question has yet to be answered: whether the Virginia General Assembly will back the bonds needed to pay for a $360 million stadium near Dulles International Airport.
Powerful legislators across the state's political spectrum have voiced conflicting views just as major league officials say they are nearing the end of a protracted -- and highly secretive -- selection process. That lengthy procedure has pitted Virginia against the District and other cities in a hectic competition to be home to the financially ailing Expos.
The District also would require legislation to build a publicly funded stadium, but Virginia's bid has recently been complicated by timing. Major league officials, who say they want to decide the fate of the Expos by November, are seeking immediate assurances from Virginia that the state would endorse the ballpark financing plan. But the General Assembly does not convene until January.
That has left supporters and opponents of Virginia's tangled, public-private ballpark financing plan scurrying to make their cases to Major League Baseball without the benefit of a vote. The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, which was created by the legislature to finance and build a ballpark, has yet to provide legislators with an explanation of how the financing plan would affect the state budget, which lawmakers just finished piecing together after an extended fight.
"We anticipate it will have a positive impact, but the impact has not been calculated," said stadium authority spokesman Brian Hannigan, adding that legislators will be briefed well before they vote. "We intend to provide them with every bit of information needed to make an educated decision," he said.
Some lawmakers said they would need time to consider the financing question, given the high stakes.
"It's something we should enter in very carefully," said Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), a member of the Finance Committee. "Sure, I'd love the state to have a baseball team. . . . I'd like us to have basketball and football teams, too. But we need to be careful on how this is going to impact our credit rating."
At issue is whether the state should put its "moral authority" behind bonds used to fund construction of a stadium.
The state usually sells general obligation bonds, which are approved by voters to pay for such things as public buildings, roads and parks. The debt service on those bonds are paid from state revenue and carry a top AAA credit rating.
So-called moral authority bonds are a second-tier type of financing that benefit from the state's good credit but are somewhat riskier than the traditional general obligation bonds. Under such bonds, the state would pledge to consider making debt service payments in case of default. Using that pledge would make borrowing cheaper, saving the stadium project millions of dollars.
That risk to the state in putting its imprimatur on such a bond is stopping some legislators.
Unlike many issues in Richmond, debate on the stadium generally has not been driven by partisan or regional differences.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) has joined House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) in arguing that the state should not put its credibility on the line for such a purpose. They fear it could make it more difficult to borrow for other public projects.
Other influential lawmakers, such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) and Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William), a member of the Finance Committee, have argued that the stadium financing arrangements are a good investment. The stadium plan, backers say, is based on conservative assumptions and does not leave the state vulnerable.