On an 8-to-1 vote, the Rhode Island Senate's Finance Committee approved legislation that would use public financing to help build a new PawSox stadium in downtown Pawtucket, although the proposal's outlook in the House remains far from certain.
The vote, with Sen. Nicholas Kettle (R-Coventry) voting in opposition, took place after supporters and opponents aired familiar arguments for a bit more than an hour.
The legislation includes public borrowing to pay for about half the cost of a new $83 million stadium for the Triple A team. (The team has indicated the cost may be higher.) The bills are slated to go to the full Senate next Tuesday, and Senate leaders say they're confident of passage.
But House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said he needs to be convinced that Rhode Islanders support the deal.
Asked what can be done to get the PawSox proposal through the House, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said, "Well obviously, the governor would have to have her discussions, I will have my discussions with the speaker, and then we’ll see where it goes from there. There’s some impetus in the House for this to pass, and once we send this over I think they’ll take a good look at this."
When the same question was put to Senate Finance Chairman William Conley (D-East Providence), he said, "I don't know. That's a question that has to really be directed to the House. I think that the Senate Finance Committee has done the best job it can -- I think it's done a great job. We're going to bring it to the [Senate] floor .... then it's going to be up to the speaker and the House in terms of what they do with the legislation."
The vote followed debate on the merits of the deal.
Republican Steven Frias, who almost defeated Mattiello for his state rep seat in 2016, returned to the Statehouse to repeat his view that the ballpark proposal is a bad bet for taxpayers. He said using public borrowing for about half of the projected $83 million cost of the stadium reminded him of one of Rhode Island’s signature big blunders.
“Because what is you’re doing is putting a debt on the taxpayers, without their approval, to assist a private company, to promote economic development," Frias said. "Sounds a lot like 38 Studios.”
That view was rejected by Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket), a co-sponsor of the stadium legislation. She said Pawtucket desperately needs an economic spark, due to the downsizing of Memorial Hospital and the possible relocation of toy-maker Hasbro.
Nesselbush said the 38 Studios comparison doesn’t hold up since lawmakers have conducted hours of public hearings on the stadium proposal.
“I believe it’s upward of 30 hours, culling through the reports of the various experts, looking at the numbers, having the Senate Fiscal staff make sure that these numbers work,” she said.
Frias said the PawSox have repeatedly threatened to leave Rhode Island and he expressed doubt that the team would follow through on that. Yet Worcester has made clear its interest in attracting the PawSox, and supporters of the Pawtucket proposal consider that an active threat.
In a statement after the vote, the PawSox said, “We are pleased with tonight’s action by the Senate Finance Committee. We commend Senate President Ruggerio and Chairman Conley for their leadership roles with respect to this enabling legislation for the Pawtucket ballpark bills. Now we await the next step in this process with the vote on the Senate Floor on Tuesday, January 16.”
This post has been updated.