Raimondo says she can’t support Grebien’s current PawSox bill

Mayor's aide pushes back at concerns about state guaranteeing Pawtucket's share

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo said Thursday she cannot support the legislation Pawtucket’s mayor has put forward to fund a new Pawtucket Red Sox stadium because it poses too much risk to state taxpayers.

Her comments marked another blow to Mayor Don Grebien, who worked closely with Raimondo’s aides and the PawSox ownership group to shape the $83-million proposal. Grebien has expressed frustration with Raimondo’s unwillingness to endorse the final plan, and lawmakers’ subsequent decision to shelve it.

Grebien’s bill calls for the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency to borrow $71 million to fund the ballpark, with $33 million to be paid off by the team, $23 million to be paid off by the state and $15 million to be paid off by the city. He has said repeatedly that estimates show revenue generated by the stadium will more than cover payments on the state and city debt.

In an interview, Raimondo suggested a key sticking point for her is language in Grebien’s bill that indicates state taxpayers would guarantee payment of Pawtucket’s $15 million share, on top of the state’s $23 million share.

“What I wouldn’t be able to support is if the city wanted the state to guarantee its portion of the investment, and that’s something that would be problematic,” she said. “Because my goal in this all along is to protect the taxpayers of Rhode Island, and that’s what I’m doing, protecting the taxpayers of Rhode Island.”

Raimondo said it was “a little bit of a surprise” and “a source of concern” that the city was pushing to include the state guarantee, which she said became an issue over the weekend. “That’s not something I could support in good conscience. … That’s just too much, I think, for us to be able to afford,” she said.

Dylan Zelazo, Grebien’s chief of staff, sharply disagreed with Raimondo’s assessment. He said that estimates show the ballpark will bring in more than twice the revenue Pawtucket needs to pay its $15 million, and even if that amount fell far short, the legislation authorizes state officials to take other steps – including withholding state aid – to pay it off.

“Very clearly there’s a backstop of the city’s bond by the city,” Zelazo said.

“The only way that I could contemplate a scenario where the city was not paying for its debt service through city revenues is if the [state] director of administration elected not to take those dollars,” he added.

Grebien and other supporters of the ballpark continue to push state leaders to take up the ballpark bill before this year’s legislative session ends next month, something Senate President Dominick Ruggerio ruled out earlier this week, though he left the door open to examining it in the fall. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said he will not take it up unless Raimondo endorses it.

“This proposal will have a massive positive impact on construction jobs, the city of Pawtucket and the state of Rhode Island,” Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council, said Thursday. “To lose this project and allow the PawSox to relocate to another out-of-state community would be a devastating legacy for our state.”

Raimondo gave no indication Thursday she will throw her weight behind the ballpark anytime soon – even after the session ends.

“I’m not going to push for it,” Raimondo said. “This is the mayor of Pawtucket’s initiative. I think it’s a good thing for Pawtucket, I think it’s good economic development for Pawtucket, if we could get a deal done that protects the taxpayers.”

“He’s worked very hard on it, and we’ll see if he continues to go for it,” she 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