Supporters of a Baltimore football stadium scored a major victory yesterday as the owner of the city's new NFL team pledged to contribute $24 million to the cost of the project.
While legislative leaders pushing the stadium can't yet guarantee enough votes to approve the $200 million project, they said the concession by the team will help win over undecided or reluctant lawmakers.
In a further effort to win converts yesterday, sponsors of the bill requiring the $24 million contribution from the former Cleveland Browns pledged that the money will be set aside for school construction.
"This has got to bring a lot of people on board," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.
"He did it because he understands the political problem that exists in the legislature. He's not a dumb man," Mr. Taylor said.
Prospects for winning legislative approval seemed to rise when Mr. Modell decided to grant the full $24 million without further negotiations.
The Baltimore stadium deal remains complicated, however, because of the commitment by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to contribute $73 million in infrastructure and road improvements to a privately financed stadium for the Washington Redskins in Prince George's County.
Getting county to pay
Lawmakers and others tried again yesterday to conclude a deal that would shift a third of the state's costs for that project to Prince George's and team owner Jack Kent Cooke.
But the day's major breakthrough came from an official of the new Baltimore team. In what supporters hope was a vote-winning concession, a representative of Mr. Modell told a House of Delegates committee that the team owner had agreed to the $24 million contribution.
"He has asked me to tell you he will pay $24 million in money that would otherwise be going to him," David L. Hopcraft told the Appropriations Committee. "We share your concerns and we want to cooperate with you."
No one on the committee asked, but Mr. Hopcraft said in an interview afterward that the team would not be willing to make further financial concessions. "The well is dry," he said.
Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John A. Moag Jr., who negotiated the original stadium deal with Mr. Modell last fall, said he spent three hours with the team owner Monday explaining that he risked everything if he insisted on no modifications.
"I said, 'Look, if you want to fight we're there with you,' " Mr. Moag said he told Mr. Modell. " 'But let me tell you what it means. It probably means a train crash.' "
Without yesterday's pledge by Mr. Modell, Speaker Taylor said he did not think he could have won the 71 votes he needs to pass the stadium spending measure.
Delegates who were leaning toward the projects, despite opposition they feel in their home districts, may now find a way to vote yes, he said.
"It certainly makes the deal far more palatable," said Del. John F. Slade III, a Democrat from St. Mary's County. "I think it's important the team put something into the pot, show a commitment to the state."
It could be undecided lawmakers such as Mr. Slade who hold the keys to building the stadium.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the stadium vote count in the Senate fluctuates daily and urged the governor to get more involved in the effort.
"There are some [legislators] who need to be spoken to by the governor," said Mr. Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.
While outright opponents of the project called Mr. Modell's concession laudable, they said the project is still a bad idea given the state's tough financial picture.
"It's a question of whether we're going to do it in a time when we have no money for prison construction for the next five years," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown Democrat.
An undercurrent of yesterday's action was the belief by many legislators that Mr. Glendening made a mistake by excluding them from the negotiations with the team last fall. The agreement he signed in October, many say now, is too sweet for the team.
"I think a lot of this [controversy] would have been reduced if the governor had called" the legislature's presiding officers before the deal was completed, said Del. James W. Campbell, the Baltimore Democrat.
For his part, Mr. Glendening applauded the team owner's concession.
"This agreement refines our earlier proposal and makes it stronger," he said. "It was appropriate for the legislature to recommend alternative funding options for the Baltimore project, and it was appropriate for Mr. Modell to agree to help defray the construction costs with this contribution."
The team's contribution is to go to the Stadium Authority, which in turn would tap into its operating profits and earmark $2.4 million a year for 10 years beginning in 2001 to build schools.
That fund would supplement the state's normal school-construction expenditures, which this year will top $130 million.
"That helps with a lot of our members who have been concerned about school construction," Mr. Taylor said.
The precise terms of the $24 million payment will be included in the lease the team must now negotiate with the stadium authority, a document that could take a year or more to write.
The legislation the team endorsed yesterday allows Mr. Modell to make the $24 million contribution in such a way that it will save the team thousands of dollars in corporate income taxes, financial experts said.
Several supporters and opponents of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to use state money to help pay for two National Football League stadiums will take part in a televised debate tonight. The hourlong program will be broadcast live at 7:30 p.m. on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67 in the Baltimore-Annapolis area.