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Virginia legislature has bipartisan support to build stadium complex for Washington Commanders

Virginia made a significant stride Tuesday toward creating a football authority to attract the Washington Commanders. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Virginia’s efforts to attract the Washington Commanders to the commonwealth took a significant step this week as the House and Senate expressed bipartisan support for legislation to build a stadium and vast commercial complex in Northern Virginia.

On Monday, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed a bill, 62-37, to create a football stadium authority that would oversee the financing and construction of a stadium that would anchor a massive retail and entertainment complex. On Tuesday, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a similar bill, 32-8. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who carried the bill, called it a “huge economic development project” that would not cost the state “a nickel.”

“It’s almost a mini-city,” he said.

The bills, which have slight but significant variations, now go to the opposite chambers. If both pass, the General Assembly would create a conference committee to negotiate which parts of each bill are included in the final version.

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That bill would be sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who in January signaled he would support the team’s move to Virginia. The team has not ruled out returning to Washington or staying at Maryland’s FedEx Field, but it has been in discussions with Virginia officials for months. If the team moves to Virginia, it would target Loudoun or Prince William counties for a development that could cost about $3 billion.

If the bill becomes law, the authority would be authorized to sell bonds to help fund a new, roughly $1 billion stadium. In a Senate hearing, Saslaw said the team would need to invest about $2 billion to complete the larger project. The House bill proposed the bonds be paid back over 20 years; the Senate proposed 30 years.

In the past two weeks, as the U.S. Congress intensified its calls on the NFL to release the details of its investigation of the team’s workplace, political leaders have faced scrutiny about committing public resources to the franchise.

Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) proposed an amendment that would have delayed creating the football authority until the NFL released the full findings of the investigation regarding Commanders owner Daniel Snyder. He said that, while building an NFL stadium in Virginia is a good economic opportunity, “you have to be diligent to know who it is you’re going into business with.”

Though the amendment died, Simon said he hopes the investigation will be on the minds of legislators as they move forward.

“If [the team] can clean up their act, if we can get to the root of what happened and know and [feel] comfortable that it’s been properly addressed, then sure, I’d love for Virginia to be the home of the stadium,” Simon said.

In the bills passed this week, the House and Senate presented two approaches in how aggressive the commonwealth could be when pursuing the team.

The House bill, submitted by Del. Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach), is the conservative option. The bill would create a revenue stream for the team by allowing it to recapture 2 percent of the sales tax on items purchased in the complex.

It also would require the team to pay “at least 50 percent” of its stadium naming-rights deal to the authority until the authority paid off “the principal, interest and any other financing costs of all bonds issued under this chapter.”

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The Senate bill is more generous. It would give the team two revenue streams — the 2 percent sales tax as well as income tax from the salaries of players and executives — and let it keep all of the profits from a naming-rights deal. The bill also passed with a floor amendment intended to ensure that revenue generated by any sports betting on the site would be subject to state taxes.

Going by his bill, Saslaw estimated the complex would generate $153 million in annual tax revenue, which would be divided among the state’s general fund ($60 million), the locality ($59 million) and bond repayment ($34 million). He added any bonds issued by the authority would be backed by the team, not the state, and that the bill “does not create a penny of debt backed by the commonwealth.”

“We’re in competition with Maryland and with D.C.,” Saslaw said during a committee hearing. “Basically, 35 percent of the total taxes that are generated will go to debt service. Sixty-five percent will go to the state, which, if [the team goes] to Maryland or D.C., we won’t have anything.”

Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) challenged Saslaw in jest: “Can you get them to change that name?”

“Believe you me,” Saslaw said of the Commanders, “it wouldn’t have been my first choice.”

On Monday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was asked whether the team’s workplace culture and seeming refusal to cooperate with Congress affected her long-standing position that it should return to the city. She said she did not support anyone defying Congress but would continue to pursue the team.

“The team owner … said never — NEVER — would the name change, and we’ve seen the name change,” she said. “Others have said never — NEVER — will we see the culture change, and so we know that these things can happen with the appropriate amount of pressure.”

Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.

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