Concerns of Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, as well as top state lawmakers, about putting the state's "moral obligation" on the line to finance a baseball stadium have complicated negotiations with Major League Baseball, backers of bringing a team to Northern Virginia said yesterday.
The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, which was created by the General Assembly to win a team and build it a stadium, has proposed financing a $360 million ballpark using a type of bond financing that benefits from the state's good credit while opening the state to some risk.
The authority needs approval of the legislature and Warner (D) to use those so-called moral obligation bonds because the state would pledge to consider making debt service payments in case of default.
The proposed setup, which would make borrowing cheaper, saving the authority millions of dollars, has sparked a debate in Richmond on whether the state should help finance a facility for a private business. But the General Assembly will not head back to work until January, making Warner's stance a bellwether for baseball.
Baseball officials met with representatives of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority yesterday, but baseball sources said a site recommendation is unlikely this week.
Those at the meeting included the authority's executive director, Gabe Paul Jr.; Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac), vice chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors; and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. A meeting with D.C. representatives is expected to be held today.
Tulloch said that a number of unspecified issues were resolved at yesterday's meeting and that progress was made narrowing financing options, though he would not provide details. "We're closer," he said. "I see the end of this very long and tedious dance in sight."
A source familiar with Virginia's negotiations said Warner has so far balked at pledging the state's moral obligation for the stadium.
House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), said he has heard grumblings that Warner's concern about the moral obligation bonds is holding up a final deal to bring a team to Northern Virginia.
"It can't fly without him, and he's been out front in terms of getting baseball for Virginia," Callahan said. "I hope he doesn't get cold feet at this 11th hour."
Warner declined to respond directly to the criticism. He said he remains "a longtime supporter of bringing baseball to Virginia." But he again expressed concern about the state lending its moral obligation to the borrowing for a baseball stadium.
Such concerns echo those of two of the state's most powerful lawmakers, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford).
"I also realize that it's essential that Virginia strikes the best deal possible that protects the Virginia taxpayer," Warner said in a brief interview. "Many deals in the past have not adequately protected the investment of the state and the local communities."
Warner said Finance Secretary John M. Bennett "continues to talk" with members of the stadium authority and others involved in the baseball discussions.
"It's still a very fluid situation," Warner said.
State finance officials have expressed concern about using the state's moral obligation to guarantee bonds for a stadium. Officials said the procedure has been used only three times in the state's history, and two of the cases involved the state guaranteeing borrowing by local governments.
The authority is considering alternatives for enhancing the creditworthiness of the ballpark project, including securing private insurance, authority spokesman Brian Hannigan said.
Baseball officials said in the meeting that they have given formal notice that the Montreal Expos will move before next season but didn't indicate where, Tulloch said.
Staff writer Tom Heath contributed to this report.