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Monday, March 10, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ballmer puts expiration date on KeyArena expansion offer

Seattle Times staff reporters

Ratcheting up the pressure on the Legislature, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says his investment group's offer of $150 million in private money for a KeyArena expansion will go away if lawmakers don't act quickly.

In a letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire and legislative leaders, Ballmer's group said lawmakers need to authorize a taxpayer contribution to the KeyArena project before the NBA Board of Governors meets next month to vote on Sonics owner Clay Bennett's request to move the team to Oklahoma City.

If no arena plan is passed by April 10, "we will need to go back to our other responsibilities and our offer will expire," said the letter signed by Ballmer, wireless mogul John Stanton, Seattle developer Matt Griffin and Costco CEO Jim Sinegal.

Ballmer's group is offering to split the cost of a $300 million KeyArena renovation with the public. They're also willing to buy the Sonics or another NBA franchise to play there.

While Gregoire has been reluctant to push the proposal, her Republican rival, gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, strongly endorsed the plan this afternoon.

"I have been skeptical about stadium plans in the past, but this is the best proposal I've ever seen in this area," Rossi said in a written statement.

Lawmakers are being pressured to authorize $75 million in car-rental and restaurant taxes in King County for the KeyArena project. Those taxes would not be new — they are currently devoted to paying off the debt on Safeco Field. The taxes would expire by 2016.

Another $75 million in public money would come from the city of Seattle, through admissions taxes or lease payments on KeyArena.

But legislative leaders have said they'd prefer to wait until next year to made a decision. In recent days, top Democrats have circulated a letter which proposes to form a task force to work on the issue over the interim.

The Sonics proposal "arrived in Olympia with only a few days left in the legislative session," said the letter drafted by Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

The letter suggests the task force would examine a broader package of King County taxes that could fund an array of projects for the arts, low-income housing, Puget Sound cleanup and a renovation of Husky Stadium in addition to the KeyArena expansion.

"All these projects have merit, and because of this we must look at how best to prioritize and decide how to fund them in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner," the letter says.

Republican legislative leaders have refused to sign the letter, saying it amounts to dodging the issue.

"It doesn't seem genuine," said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. "They can punt without me."

DeBolt said he was not sure he'd vote for the arena proposal, but added the plan was worth exploring.

Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the Legislature should act now.

"It's all about the (NBA) Board of Governors meeting," Ceis said. "We need to have a viable option."

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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