Legislation proposes money for Cubs

PHOENIX -- An Arizona House committee on Wednesday advanced legislation to provide money for a new spring training facility for the Chicago Cubs despite opposition from Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

The committee approved a $1 surcharge on each auto rental in the Phoenix area and an 8 percent surcharge on tickets to all spring training games played in Maricopa County.

Spring training is a tourism engine for Arizona, and the Cubs are the state's highest-drawing team. The Phoenix suburb of Mesa is fighting to keep the team because it consistently draws loyal fans from Chicago and around the country to spend money locally, even if the team is struggling on the field.

But Selig says it's unfair to add a ticket surcharge for games that don't include the Cubs.

"The commissioner is opposed to the proposed legislation," Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "He is committed to finding an alternative method of financing that will allow the Cubs to continue training in Arizona."

The Cubs last month turned down an offer to move to Florida, choosing to continue training in Mesa as long as the state and the city can come up with $84 million for a new training facility, including a stadium and practice fields.

The legislation is designed to raise about $59 million from the state. Mesa plans to cover the rest by asking voters to approve new bonds in a November election.

"It's unfortunate that the commissioner would come out against something that I don't think he truly understands," Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said.

Arizona cities in recent years have lured teams from Florida by promising to build new stadiums and expansive practice facilities. The Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority has spent an estimated $183 million in the past decade to help build and renovate spring training facilities, many of which brought teams from Florida or prevented teams already here from leaving.

The authority, which was created primarily to build a stadium for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, is funded through a rental-car and hotel tax approved by voters in 2000. But it's now strapped for cash and has no money for new spring training facilities. With the Cubs' lease on their aging facility in Mesa set to expire in 2016 with an option to leave earlier, Mesa leaders scrambled to counter incentive offers from Naples, Fla.

Cubs president Crane Kenney said Selig and other team owners have told him they want the Cubs to stay in Arizona and their opposition stems solely from the funding mechanism. He also said his team is committed to Arizona but isn't married to any particular funding method.

"We're going to rely on the legislators who do this for a living to figure this one out," Kenney said.

Selig's office is proposing that Arizona lawmakers create a new type of economic development incentive available in other states called tax increment financing. An Arizona attorney representing the commissioner said such a move would give the state a mechanism to offer incentives to the Cubs and other teams without taxing car renters or baseball fans.

But House Majority Leader Rep. John McComish, the Phoenix Republican who is sponsoring the Cubs legislation, said the proposal is not politically feasible in the Arizona Legislature.

McComish insists that his legislation is not just about the Cubs, saying it would produce extra revenue beyond what is needed to pay the debt on the Cubs stadium. The extra money would go to other teams that train in Arizona, he said.

Still, the legislation only goes into effect if the Cubs stay in Mesa, and all 14 of the other teams that train in Arizona have opposed it. Most of them train in stadiums built or renovated with tax dollars.

"It's not fair when there's a game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Oakland A's at Maryvale Stadium that those fans will be paying for a facility in Mesa," said John Kaites, a lobbyist representing them.

Rental car companies also opposed the legislation, saying their customers shouldn't have to pay for a facility that has nothing to do with renting cars.

They said Arizona already has some of the highest car-rental taxes in the country.

McComish said he will meet with stakeholders to try to address their concerns before the measure goes to the full House. He said he wasn't sure how the bill might change.