PawSox legislation passes RI Senate

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday easily passed legislation for a new PawSox stadium, sending the bill to the House, where it has a more uncertain future.

The Senate vote was 26-9 in support of the deal for a new $83 million ballpark at the old Apex site in downtown Pawtucket. Five Democrats joined the four Republican senators who were on hand in voting “no.”

Pawtucket Sen. William Conley, a Democrat, said the bill has been “significantly improved” since it was first introduced. The Senate Finance Committee, which he chairs, heard more than 30 hours of testimony during a series of public hearings about the bill.

After the public hearings, the committee tweaked the bill to require more of the team’s owners and generate more revenue for the city of Pawtucket.

”The bill that we passed today, with all candor, is very different and significantly improved from the bill that was introduced in June,” Conley said after the vote.

Some of the changes included giving half the proceeds from the stadium’s naming rights to the city, along with revenue from a surcharge on premium tickets. The team would also be fined if at least 50,000 square feet on ancillary development is not complete when the ballpark opens.

The underlying legislation calls for the cost of the proposed stadium to be split between the team ($45 million), the state ($23 million) and the city of Pawtucket ($15 million). In crafting the deal, state leaders said they expect revenue from the stadium and ancillary development to more than make up for the taxpayer investment.

“This is, by far and away, the most investment by a ball club anywhere in the nation for a publicly-owned stadium,” Conley said.

In a statement, the PawSox applauded the Senate’s vote. ”To steal a phrase from a famous and successful New England football coach … the Senate ‘did their job’ and we thank them for it,” the team said.

The legislation faces an uphill battle in the House, where Democratic Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has not committed to passage of a stadium deal. Mattiello said Tuesday evening the bill will be taken up by the House Finance Committee, but he did not offer any timeline for when, pointing out that the committee will be busy considering the state budget for the next several months.

”It’s not my decision to make,” Mattiello said Tuesday night. “This decision will be made collectively, collaboratively, the public’s the most important and our first opinion is going to come from the House Finance Committee. And then we’ll take it from there.”

Mattiello said his support or opposition will hinge on public opinion, and again said he’d be open to a public referendum on the matter on the ballot in November.

“I like the PawSox,” Mattiello said. “I have no strong opinion on the proposal.”

Conley said he does not support a public referendum.

”I really think a referendum is really a betrayal … of the process here,” he said. “As elected leaders, it’s our job to analyze complex issues, debate those issues and as a result of that analysis and debate, take leadership positions. And that’s what the Senate did today.”

The House could also amend the bill, or simply pass the Senate version.

House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who is also running for the Republican nomination for governor, is a staunch opponent of the stadium deal. She said Tuesday that if there was a referendum, she would support the will of the voters.

“I think it’s a bad deal for Rhode Island taxpayers,” Morgan said. “But if the people collectively want it, I will listen to them. It’s their money.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo is a supporter of the PawSox legislation, and said Tuesday she wants the legislature to pass it. Despite that, she told Eyewitness News she will not be bringing up the stadium deal in her State of the State address.