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Va. lawmakers nix arena plan, leaving Youngkin few options to revive it

Va. lawmakers nix arena plan, leaving Youngkin few options to revive it

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

RICHMOND — Leading Virginia lawmakers have stripped plans for a new Wizards and Capitals arena from the state budget that the General Assembly is expected to approve on Saturday, blocking Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s best shot at bringing the teams to Alexandria and dealing a severe blow to a deal the governor has touted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Calling the move a “colossal mistake,” Youngkin (R) told reporters Thursday that one senator — Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), though he did not name her — was acting as “a single roadblock. … It just befuddles me that we’re not talking today about how to deliver it.”

Lucas, who stood on the portico of the Capitol looking down on Youngkin’s news conference, said afterward that he was correct in his assessment. “I am a roadblock, yes,” Lucas said, adding that she does not believe the arena and its $1.5 billion in public debt is a good deal for taxpayers. Asked if she would be open to a better arena deal, she said, “A better deal would be if they paid for it themselves,” referring to the teams’ owner Ted Leonsis.

Lucas used her position as chairwoman of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee to strip language authorizing the arena from the compromise state budget that has been worked out by lawmakers from the Senate and House of Delegates. That budget was being presented Thursday afternoon, with a vote set for Saturday, the final scheduled day of the General Assembly session.

Though Youngkin has several options for reviving the plan — such as introducing a budget amendment or sending down a stand-alone bill — he indicated Thursday that he has no immediate plans to do so. “The next step is for the General Assembly and particularly the Senate to embrace the opportunity. It’s their move,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the arena legislation in his chamber, blasted the governor for suggesting the Senate might be able to rework the budget compromise before the deadline for publishing the conference report, which was Thursday night.

“We can’t negotiate a multibillion dollar deal in eight hours between two chambers and the governor’s mansion and multiple private parties. It’s nonsense and it’s a press stunt,” Surovell said. He said the governor failed to seriously engage legislators on certain aspects of the deal that gave them pause, including the financing.

Youngkin is widely expected to resurrect the arena when the legislature returns April 17 to consider bills the governor has vetoed or amended. That’s risky, though — an arena budget amendment or stand-alone bill will require support from a majority in both chambers to win passage. The plan could have passed much more easily had the arena language been embedded in the state budget bill that emerged Thursday from negotiations, which only gets an up-or-down vote as a whole and routinely passes.

On the House side, where Democratic leaders had included arena language in their proposed version of the budget, talk was already moving on to other topics.

“I think what I would like to focus on are the good things that we have in the budget. Everyone wants to make the arena the story; that is not the story for this budget. The story for the budget is that we are getting the budget out on time to address the critical needs of the commonwealth of Virginia,” House Appropriations Chairman Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) said in a brief interview.

The dramatic rejection of the project came despite a flurry of last-minute efforts to woo Lucas, a veteran lawmaker with a newly powerful position who has made no secret that she opposes the deal.

Leonsis, the billionaire owner of the NBA and NHL teams, traveled to Richmond Wednesday for his first face-to-face meeting with the former shipyard worker standing in the way of his $2 billion arena. He called her a “badass,” Lucas said, and she took that as a compliment.

“I loved it,” she told The Washington Post Thursday. “I thanked him.”

But Lucas made it clear she wasn’t budging. She had complained previously that the administration did not bring her in on the project earlier. Although an army of lobbyists had approached her, she had never spoken or met directly with officials from Leonsis’s company, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, until Leonsis sat down with her Wednesday at the hotel where she stays during legislative session. Joining him was Monumental government relations chief Monica Dixon and Torian, the House appropriations chairman, she said.

Monumental executives did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“He was very nice,” Lucas said, describing the sit-down as “totally cordial … I told him maybe we’ll get to work on some things in the future.”

They had another conversation later that day, by phone, she said, but she was unmoved. She said she told the governor that herself when he called early Wednesday evening.

“He didn’t get huffy or anything like that, but he just said, in a very solemn way, ‘I’m just so disappointed that you will not see the advantages of this for the entire commonwealth,’” she said. “He tried to make it like, ‘Oh, you just killed the commonwealth.’ And I said, ‘Governor, I’ve thought about the negative impact — to put the full faith and credit of the commonwealth behind a project that’s going to enrich billionaires was a bridge too far for me.’”

In his news conference Thursday, Youngkin praised House Speaker Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) and other delegates for working to understand and consider the arena proposal.

“The speaker and the House of Delegates took the time to learn about this project, they hired outside advisers to confirm its merits,” Youngkin said. As part of that process, he said he had been willing to work toward Democratic priorities such as allocating extra funding for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority and providing toll relief in Hampton Roads. But Youngkin noted that Democrats are sending him as many as 1,000 bills by the end of session, including measures to create a legal marijuana marketplace, and hinted that he is no longer in a compromising mood.

“I think this really sets us meaningfully back,” he said.

Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), who is Senate Democratic caucus chairwoman, said she was not fazed by the possibility of Youngkin causing carnage with the party’s legislation. “He can try the kamikaze route if he wishes,” she said. “My mind isn’t going to change as a result of his threats.”

She said that Youngkin had presented the arena as a package deal and had not respected the new leadership of the legislature. “We’re talking about a lack of process, we’re talking about a lack of information, we’re talking about a rush [of] putting together a project that did not have to be rushed. There are all kinds of problems that were part of this whole thing,” Locke said.

House Appropriations Vice Chair Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax), who is one of the budget negotiators, said there were too many doubts about the arena proposal as currently configured to be overcome. “It’s not ready for prime time,” he said Wednesday night. “There’s questions about it … The consensus bill has not been developed yet for the arena.”

In an interview with The Post on Wednesday night, Scott said he was not quite ready to pronounce the arena dead.

“There have been several conversations back and forth. It’s not final until it’s final,” he said. But, he added, “there have been folks from labor, there’ve been folks from our side of the aisle and across the aisle who have tried in good faith to see if we can examine this opportunity for what it was. And if we don’t get there, the Commonwealth will still be fine and we’ll still be able to make more economic development deals, whether this one comes through or not.”

A spokesperson for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Thursday declined to comment on the arena’s removal from the state budget proposal; in December, Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) had offered Leonsis $500 million in public funds to upgrade the teams’ current home at Capital One Arena, though Leonsis announced the tentative deal to move to Alexandria the following day.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that the city’s $500 million offer remains available to Monumental should they keep the teams at Capital One Arena.

“As a deal in Virginia remains uncertain, the Council continues to be ready to welcome Monumental Sports’ change of mind,” Mendelson wrote, adding: “it continues to be our position that Monumental Sports should stay, and our offer remains on the table.”

Bowser, who since December has rolled out plans to revitalize downtown and the neighborhood that surrounds Capital One Arena, has said she would probably reinvest the money into downtown improvements if Leonsis doesn’t take it.

Alexandria Mayor Justin M. Wilson (D) said in an interview Thursday morning that — in his view — the status of the handshake deal had not changed since he and other officials unveiled it publicly in December. The city still would have to approve the deal even if it passed the General Assembly.

“The General Assembly has to take action to let the city consider whether this is the right opportunity for us,” he said. “That can’t happen if it doesn’t get out of Richmond. That’s still where we’re at.”

City council members, including Wilson, have stressed that the latest draft bill out of Richmond did not include enough representation for the city on a sports and entertainment authority that would build the new arena. The city and state would each backstop half of the debt assumed by that authority, and several city lawmakers have indicated that the plan could face obstacles in Alexandria without more city-appointed seats on the authority’s board.

Youngkin and Leonsis had announced the arena deal in December with great fanfare, promising it would generate billions in revenue for the state and the city of Alexandria and spin off 30,000 jobs across Virginia. Bringing not one, but two professional sports franchises to a state with none promised to be a major legacy maker for Youngkin, who lured Leonsis with $1.5 billion in taxpayer-backed bonds.

But the proposal has drawn opposition from the start — from D.C. leaders, who want to keep the teams playing downtown, from Alexandria residents leery of what it would do to already crowded roadways and from lawmakers who complained they were kept out of negotiations and who expressed doubt about the public debt obligation.

Lucas has been the chief skeptic. She took the reins of the powerful finance committee this year after elections ushered in a new set of Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate. Decrying the project as the “Glenn Dome,” Lucas said she was opposed to subsidizing a billionaire team owner and worried about harming the state’s finances.

Though she suggested she might come around if the governor agreed to a host of Democratic priorities — such as providing toll relief in the Hampton Roads region, establishing a legal marijuana market and raising the minimum wage — Lucas blocked the deal from the Senate budget and refused to even schedule hearings for two stand-alone bills related to it.

Teo Armus and Michael Brice-Saddler in Washington contributed to this report.

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