Senate leader: PawSox deal dead for this session

Mattiello says House won't take up stadium proposal unless Raimondo endorses it

(Image provided by PawSox)

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – For the second time in two years, the Pawtucket Red Sox have struck out in their effort to win taxpayer support for a new ballpark.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio announced Tuesday his chamber will not take up the team’s latest stadium proposal before lawmakers finish their session next month, killing it for now, though he is open to taking it up this fall.

“The Senate has not received any legislation from the governor’s office or the Pawtucket mayor’s office,” Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said in a statement. “At this point, it is too late in the session for a thorough, public review of a proposal of this magnitude.”

“Should legislation be forthcoming, I am not opposed to reconvening in the fall to consider it in a deliberative and public manner,” Ruggerio added. The General Assembly does not usually meet during the fall but occasionally does for major policy debates, such as the 2011 pension overhaul.

Gov. Gina Raimondo quickly announced that she agreed with Ruggerio’s decision.

“My staff at Commerce worked to guide the city and the team toward the framework for a deal that would protect Rhode Island’s taxpayers,” she said. “However, final legislation from the city has still not reached my desk, and I agree with Senate President Ruggerio that consideration of a new ballpark is too important to rush this legislative session.”

Raimondo added that she credits Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien “for so passionately advocating for Pawtucket.”

A spokesman for the PawSox declined to comment.

Dominick Ruggerio

Ruggerio’s decisive intervention came just a week after Pawtucket and team officials announced the stadium plan, and as Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello continued to spar over whether lawmakers should review the hot-button proposal at all before this year’s legislative session ends next month. Pawtucket officials had been planning to introduce draft legislation for the stadium deal as soon as Wednesday.

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell, a vociferous critic of the stadium plan, crowed on Twitter: “RIGOP strikes out Lucchino and Company for the second time.”

Under the proposal outlined last week, the team’s owners would pay $45 million towards the $83 million cost of the new publicly owned stadium at the site of the Apex building. The state would kick in $23 million, and the city would contribute the remaining $15 million. Team officials argue the public portion of the project would be covered by tax revenue generated in and around the stadium, though they have ruled out incorporating a formal guarantee to that effect.

Ruggerio himself had offered a positive initial reaction to the proposed ballpark last week, but emphasized then that it needed to be “thoroughly analyzed and reviewed” before determining whether it should be included in the state budget.

On Tuesday afternoon, Ruggerio said there is still time to keep the team in Rhode Island.

“They’re not forced out of the stadium that they’re in at this point in time, so they can still finish the season and play next season there, and we will see what happens in between that time,” he told Eyewitness News.

Raimondo has tried to straddle the stadium debate in recent days. One of her closest aides, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, has spent months working on the proposal with PawSox Chairman Larry Lucchino and other team leaders. Yet she has refused to formally endorse the plan, even as she said it appears to be a good deal for taxpayers and encouraged lawmakers to take it up.

“Pawtucket’s ballpark proposal is much improved over the one from two years ago and merits a public debate, but it’s not a top priority for the governor,” Raimondo spokesman Mike Raia told Eyewitness News earlier Tuesday, before Ruggerio’s announcement.

But Mattiello – who was burned by his strong support for the last PawSox stadium proposal, in 2015 – has appeared to be calling the governor’s bluff, insisting he would not look at the legislation “without her endorsement and her stamp of approval,” House spokesman Larry Berman said.

“The speaker finds it highly unusual that the governor is unwilling to endorse a financial plan that she and her team negotiated,” Berman said. “The stadium is a significant taxpayer investment, and with the governor sending mixed signals, it is likely too late in the session to initiate a proposal of this magnitude.”

Berman also said the annual deadline to introduce bills without the speaker’s sign-off had passed, and Mattiello “does not anticipate granting permission to have a Pawtucket stadium bill drafted unless it is requested directly by the governor.”

In response to Ruggerio’s statement, Berman reiterated that even in the context of a fall session Mattiello will not take up the stadium plan unless Raimondo endorses it.

The tepid response to the stadium plan marked a major setback for the PawSox owners and Grebien, who have praised the proposal as a much-needed economic boost to the city’s downtown redevelopment efforts that poses limited risk to taxpayers.

Dylan Zelazo, Grebien’s chief of staff, had expressed surprise early Tuesday afternoon when informed Mattiello wouldn’t allow the bill to be introduced without Raimondo’s formal endorsement. He said the city’s bond counsel was working with Pryor’s staff to draft the legislation, and that they’d hoped to send it to Raimondo for her review and sign-off by the end of the day Tuesday, with an eye on having it introduced later in the week.

Larry Lucchino

Appearing on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last Friday, Lucchino, the PawSox chairman, argued the team’s offer to pay for more than half of the stadium is believed to be the most generous split taxpayers have ever been offered on a minor-league ballpark, anywhere.

“This is a special arrangement for Rhode Island,” he said.

It appears the PawSox owners’ reputation was significantly damaged by the events of 2015, when a group led by the late attorney Jim Skeffington purchased the team from the Mondor family and immediately announced plans to leave Pawtucket for a new, taxpayer-subsidized ballpark in Providence. That proposal was met with an enormous backlash, and Lucchino abandoned it not long after Skeffington’s unexpected death that May.

Republicans are now trying to yoke Raimondo to the stadium debate with an eye on harming her 2018 re-election prospects. Bell, the GOP chairman, argued Monday that the governor “likes the new PawSox deal because it takes care of her millionaire campaign donors and the building trade unions. … The numbers she cares about is $60,000 in donations and 10,000 union votes.”

R.I. Democratic Party senior adviser Bill Lynch called Bell’s comments “unfounded and insulting,” adding that it was “nothing more than a blatant attempt to distract Rhode Islanders from the Republican president’s failing presidency, the GOP’s efforts to pay for tax cuts for millionaires by cutting health benefits for the poor and elderly while turning their backs on Rhode Islanders most in need.”

A spokesman for Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, the 2014 Republican gubernatorial candidate who is widely expected to challenge Raimondo again next year, said he does not support the ballpark proposal. “While it looked better than their earlier pitch, this still raised some concerns,” the spokesman said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Caroline Goggin contributed to this report.