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Top Democrats in Virginia Senate face setback to legislation to move Washington Capitals, Wizards

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Top Democrats in the Virginia Senate have dealt a blow to legislation to help pave the way for the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals to locate in Northern Virginia, refusing to set the bill for a hearing and expressing serious reservations Monday about funding the proposed agreement.

Sen. L. Louise Lucas, who wields great influence in the General Assembly as chairwoman of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, said for the first time this weekend on social networks that the legislation underlying the deal brokered by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin was “not ready for prime time” and would not be heard by his committee. The decision effectively killed the Senate version of the legislation due to a procedural delay this week, although another bill make some progress in the House of Delegates, also controlled by Democrats.

Lucas, who took questions from reporters Monday morning alongside Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, said Youngkin made a series of mistakes in trying to advance the proposal through a General Assembly now under full Democratic control after the November elections.

Among them, she said, was a weekend speech at Washington and Lee University in which Youngkin took a big hit to Democrats collectively, saying the party “does not believe in – and does not want – a strong America.”

Surovell said his caucus questions whether the governor is actually willing to consider Democratic priorities, including legislation to establish the sale of recreational cannabis and further raise the minimum wage, in negotiations over legislation related to the arena. Lucas is also seeking toll relief for the Hampton Roads area.

When asked if the deal was “dead,” Lucas responded bluntly: “As far as I’m concerned, it is. »

Surovell did not go that far in his remarks. He later said in an interview that he didn’t think the bill was dead yet, but added: “Something is going to have to change very soon to get the patient off the operating table here.” »

Lucas was asked whether changes to the House version of the bill, which will eventually go to his committee if it clears a House vote, could make the proposal acceptable.

She responded by saying she had a strong objection to funding the project as currently envisioned due to the use of state- and Alexandria-guaranteed moral bonds. That means taxpayers could pay the price if revenue from the project doesn’t come in as expected.

“As long as the full faith and credit of the Commonwealth supports this project, my answer remains an absolute no,” she said.

Surovell said Senate Democrats asked about funding the deal in other ways, but were told “that part of the bill is untouchable.” He added that he was not aware of moral bonds — which are typically used in Virginia to help finance public infrastructure projects — being used for a similar economic development initiative.

Rob Damschen, Youngkin’s communications director, said in a statement that the governor remains confident the Assembly “will come together because this project is good for the entire Commonwealth.”

“This creates 30,000 jobs and unlocks billions in new revenue that can be used to fund increased toll relief in Portsmouth, increased funding for I-81, and new education funding for rural and urban school divisions of the Commonwealth,” Damschen said.

Senate Republicans criticized Lucas’ refusal to put the bill to a committee vote, calling the move a “pocket veto” of the governor’s priority.

Youngkin and entrepreneur Ted Leonsis, a former ultra-rich AOL executive and CEO of the teams’ parent company, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, announced in December that they had come to an agreement on a deal to move the Capitals and Wizards.

The proposed new site in Alexandria would be just a few miles from where the teams currently play in Washington.

Legislation currently pending before the Assembly would create a sports and entertainment authority that would issue the bonds that will help finance the project. The bonds would be repaid through a mix of revenues from the arena and the broader development surrounding it, including a ticket tax, parking fees, concession taxes, income taxes levied on athletes performing in the arena and district naming rights, among other sources. .

Monica Dixon, a senior executive at Monumental, said in a written statement Monday that the company is having “healthy discussions” with General Assembly leaders and members of the Alexandria City Council, who will also have to sign the agreement . Dixon said the company was encouraged by Friday’s vote in a House committee, where the bill passed 17-3.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, in an article in the Washington Post on Sunday, urged Monumental to consider the city’s $500 million offer to renovate Washington’s Capital One Arena. If Monumental leaves for Virginia, Bowser said the city would enforce the terms of its lease.

Under that lease, the Capitals and Wizards were scheduled to play at Capital One Arena through 2047, but the teams can break the lease as early as 2027, provided they fully repay $35 million in bonds currently outstanding.

There is, however, no provision allowing Monumental to break its lease for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, who play in a smaller arena in the city and have lease obligations that extend through 2037.

Monumental said in December that he would like to move the Mystics to Capital One Arena when the Wizards and Mystics move to Virginia. But in a social media statement Sunday in response to Bowser, Monumental said it would keep the Mystics in the smaller arena until 2037 if the city insists.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Barakat contributed to this report from Falls Church.

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