Blanco exploring options to meet $15 million goal

METAIRIE, La. -- Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Thursday stopped short of guaranteeing the state would pay all of the $15 million it owes the New Orleans Saints by a July 5 deadline.

But she stressed she is researching a wide range of state revenue sources in hopes of meeting the full payment, and Saints owner Tom Benson said he expects her to succeed.

"I reiterated to the governor the many financial commitments which I and the organization have made and the fact that the current contract must be honored," Benson said in a prepared statement to reporters at the team's Jefferson Parish headquarters. "I reminded the governor that the current agreement was a result of substantial negotiations and was transparent and public."

For now, Louisiana is short $7 million of the $15 million annual payment to the Saints -- part of the $186 million incentive package negotiated by the administration of former Gov. Mike Foster.

Citing that she inherited a "very difficult situation" upon taking office -- given funding shortfalls for numerous state programs such as those pertaining to health care and education -- Blanco has been trying to persuade Benson to give the state more flexibility.

In an apparent attempt to lighten the mood of the news conference while strengthening her case, Blanco swiped a small plaque off of Benson's desk without him noticing until she held it up for reporters to see.

It read: "Money lost, nothing lost. Courage lost, everything lost."

Still, Blanco said it was her intention to get this year's full payment made, even if it meant taking a small portion of the money from the state's general fund.

"It would be our last-ditch source of money," she said.

Blanco and Benson said they would continue to meet, although they did not specify when. The main purpose behind the meetings is not so much about this year's payment to the Saints, Blanco said, as finding a long-term solution.

"I want to find the money, and I don't want Tom and I to have to meet year after year and go through the agony of me giving the bad news or anything like that," Blanco said. "We're going to try to look at something stable."

Blanco has said she and Benson would continue to work through options such as renovating the Louisiana Superdome or Benson's preference that a new stadium be built.

"My request to Mr. Benson is that if we go forward with any of these big ticket items, we would want to renegotiate the contract to make sure we have solid assurances that the Saints wouldn't exercise their exit clauses," Blanco said.

Benson said he has a tough time imagining that a renovated Superdome could ever be as nice or profitable as some of the newer stadiums around the league, but added, "if they can show me
remodeling will get the job done, that we can compete in the National Football League, then remodeling it will be."

When pressed on whether he is interested in Los Angeles, which once had two teams but now has none, Benson said, "the NFL is interested in L.A. so naturally I would be -- but not the Saints."

"We're going to work it out. The Saints belong in Louisiana. We're not trying for anything else."

Blanco has said she hopes to renegotiate Louisiana's financial deal with the Saints to include an agreement for the NFL team to stay in New Orleans through 2020 -- 10 years longer than the current
agreement in place.

Blanco said she expects some resistance from lawmakers in parts of Louisiana farthest from New Orleans, but, wearing a fleur-de-lis pin on her lapel [the same design that appears on Saints helmets],
she said keeping the team is a top priority for her administration.

"The Saints are a cherished icon in the state," she said, adding that they are a valuable business as well.

Among the ideas offered by New Orleans-area leaders to help fill in the shortfall are new taxes on Superdome ticket sales and a higher hotel-motel tax.