ith the legislative clock ticking on Beacon Hill, the Boston Red Sox's pitch for public funds will be the focus of an unusual State House caucus this week.
House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who has reserved judgment on the team's plan, scheduled a caucus with Democratic and Republican members tomorrow to review the team's proposed $627 million Fenway Park project.
Meanwhile, Governor Paul Cellucci gave the Sox's push for $135 million in state funds and $140 million in city funds a boost yesterday. Asked about the team's financing plan, Cellucci said he might allow the city to use a slight increase in the hotel tax to pay for assembling the 15-acre site needed for the proposed ballpark.
''That could work,'' Cellucci said yesterday. ''I want to talk with state leaders and Menino about the specifics. ... But I think there's a way we can get this done this year.''
Cellucci's comments were especially encouraging to the Sox since he's an adamant opponent of new taxes. Indeed, he vetoed the hike in the city's hotel tax when it was first proposed to fund site acquisition costs for the Seaport District convention center in 1997.
However, the Legislature voted to override his veto. Although hotel taxes have already been increased for the convention center, an additional one half of 1 percent hike is still available. That increase is already on the books, but is not being levied, so neither Cellucci nor the Legislature would need to approve any new taxes.
It's been estimated the tax hike could raise $2 million a year. The city could use the revenue to help cover the $140 million needed to acquire the ballpark site - if state lawmakers agree to give the city the authority to use it for that purpose.
A new tax may help the Sox get a ballpark bill back on track after Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino's rejection of the team's plan to pay back the city's investment in the project. On Saturday, Menino said he would consider using a hike in the hotel tax to help fund the city's portion of the project.
Once viewed as the champion of a new ballpark, Menino has become a major stumbling block for the team. In recent weeks, he repeatedly has rejected tentative financing proposals for a new Fenway Park, leading skeptics to question whether he really wants a ballpark bill passed this year.
Menino insists he does, saying he is ''just protecting the taxpayers.'' On Saturday, he made headlines calling for a meeting with state leaders and the Red Sox ''to negotiate as long as it take to get a deal done.''
Since then, the mayor has said he ''does not want to negotiate through the media'' and has declined to comment further on the ballpark. According to state leaders, no formal summit has been scheduled. However, top aides to Cellucci, Finneran, Senate President Thomas Birmingham and Menino will meet this week to work out an agenda for a meeting of state and city leaders and the Red Sox.
In the past, Finneran, Cellucci, and Birmingham all have signaled they are receptive to taking up a ballpark bill before lawmakers adjourn in July. However, with fewer than 70 days remaining in the legislative session and a budget battle brewing, the Sox's supporters are concerned time may be running out. Finneran may address the issue in a Chamber of Commerce speech today.
Meanwhile, community groups and Boston city councilors are angry about being left out of the process. Yesterday, City Council President James Kelly said he and at least eight other councilors are now opposed to the required landtakings. By law, the Red Sox need nine of the 13 councilors to approve landtakings.
''I don't think we should be taking people's private property and giving it to another private entity,'' Kelly said. ''And if the Red Sox think they can ignore the City Council on this, they are seriously mistaken.''
Although the additional hike in the hotel tax was designed for the new convention center, Boston is not expected to need it for that project. The city raised far more than expected from the sale of taxi medallions, and land costs for the convention center are keeping pace with projections.