NBA's Stern goes 1-on-1 with lawmakers

OLYMPIA — With just two weeks left before the scheduled end of the legislative session, backers of a taxpayer-funded KeyArena expansion trotted out some of their biggest names Thursday to plead the Sonics' case.

At a hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, NBA Commissioner David Stern joined principal Sonics owner Howard Schultz in stressing the team wants to stay in Seattle, but needs taxpayer subsidies to get a bigger arena and a more lucrative lease.

They were echoed by King County Executive Ron Sims, Sonics and Storm fans, former Sonics star Slick Watts, and arts groups that also would get a share of tax money under a proposal to make permanent several taxes that paid for the Mariners and Seahawks stadiums.

Stern said the NBA only wants a deal similar to what the Mariners and Seahawks have received.

"A substantial amount has been done for the baseball and football teams. I'm here personally to find out whether the same is being considered fairly for the NBA," he said.

If the Sonics are rejected, Stern said, "that's a decision we can accept, but we'll have to act on it ourselves."

Schultz, credited with turning Starbucks into a global giant, said repeatedly he and other owners do not want the Sonics to leave Seattle. But he noted owners have lost nearly $60 million since purchasing the team in 2001. "We can't be expected to continue to lose millions of dollars every year," he said.

Although no vote has been scheduled on the KeyArena proposal, Thursday's hearing provided the Sonics the most friendly reception yet from state lawmakers. No particularly skeptical questions were asked of Stern or Schultz.

The overall tone was set by the panel's chairwoman, Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, who has emerged as the Sonics' most enthusiastic backer in the Legislature.

In contrast with the KeyArena proposal's primary sponsor in the state House, Rep. Jim McIntire, a Seattle Democrat who seemed almost apologetic earlier this month for bringing up the bill, Prentice was unabashed in her support.

She asked Sonics President Wally Walker to tell how many championship rings he has (three) and introduced former Sonics star Watts as "our hero." Though Prentice wants to get a Sonics bill passed this year, in an interview she said the current proposal is unlikely to move forward without major changes. She said she intends to introduce an amendment to rewrite the legislation, but provided no details on what her alternative plan would be. "This was my opening shot," Prentice said.

Currently, the KeyArena proposal, contained in Senate Bill 6849 and House Bill 3233, would make permanent taxes on car rentals, hotels and restaurants in King County to create a new revenue source for "civic amenities" in King County. Such amenities would likely include a $200 million KeyArena expansion sought by the Sonics, but the final decision would be left up to county elected officials.

Thursday's hearing was not a complete love-in for the Sonics. Restaurants and car-rental associations testified in opposition to continuing taxes on their customers in King County to pay for a revamped KeyArena. They proposed a 10 percent tax on sporting goods and a tax on tickets to sports events instead.

And other opponents argued that lawmakers have a moral duty to reject the Sonics proposal.

"The indirect transfer of public wealth to private, for-profit sports teams should not be a priority of our government, under any circumstances, at any time," said David Rolf, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 775, which represents long-term-care workers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or

NBA Commissioner David Stern, right, testifies during a state Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing in Olympia on Thursday as Howard Schultz, principal owner of the Sonics, listens. Schultz is seeking a taxpayer-funded $200 million expansion of KeyArena. (JOHN FROSCHAUER / AP)
Former Sonics player Slick Watts responds to a senator's remark during Thursday's hearing before the state Senate Ways and Means Committee in Olympia. (JOHN FROSCHAUER / AP)
Sen. Margar-ita Prentice supports the Sonics' cause.