Louisiana is borrowing money to meet payments

Updated: March 23, 2005, 5:06 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- With just over a month remaining before the Louisiana Legislative session begins, the chances of the state and the New Orleans Saints hammering out a new agreement look slim.

The two sides have met five times and had no further meetings scheduled as of Wednesday.

"We have not set anything up and I don't know when we will," said Superdome commission president Tim Coulon, the state's chief negotiator. "I'm sure when the Saints people come back from Hawaii I'll hear from them."

Saints officials were not expected to return from the NFL meetings in Hawaii before March 30.

The state wants to replace an agreement reached under the administration of former Gov. Mike Foster, which has forced Louisiana to borrow money to make the annual payments. Those payments will escalate to $23.5 million in the last years of the 10-year deal, which took effect in 2002.

The Saints want a long-term deal and so far have dropped one significant demand, with team owner Tom Benson saying he is willing to stay in a renovated Superdome rather than require a new stadium. The sticking point is expected to be Gov. Kathleen Blanco's demand that the team bear some of the costs of renovations or accept lower cash subsidies after renovations are complete.

Benson had originally set a March 1 deadline so he could update fellow owners on the status at the team meetings. He dropped that deadline, but both sides hoped to wrap up a deal in time to have it acted on in this legislative session, which begins April 25.

"We intend to keep working," Coulon said. "We hope to be able to work out a deal in line with the governor's guidelines to reduce incentives and the Saints' desire to have a long-term deal."

Asked the odds of that being accomplished before the upcoming session, Coulon laughed.

"I wouldn't even venture a guess," he said.

The session, however, can last until June 23, giving the Saints and the state more time to get a proposal to lawmakers.

If a deal cannot be reached in time for this session, Coulon said his belief is that the state and Saints will continue to operate under the old agreement. That calls for Louisiana to make a $15 million payment to the team in July. Government officials have said the state will be $9 million short for that installment.

"I believe it will be our intent to ask the state bond commission to allow us to refinance the Superdome to cover that debt," Coulon said. "We have already received permission to do the preliminary advertising for the bond sale."

The governor agreed that the old deal would remain binding.

"We feel it's important that the state honor its contracts no matter who they are granted to," Blanco said. "The contract is way too generous. We can't afford it. I'm cautiously optimistic we'll see some movement."

A new agreement would probably have to wait for next year's legislative session if it's not ready for this one, Coulon said.

"The Legislature might be able to meet in a special session, but whether they or the governor would want to is another matter," Coulon said.

If a deal can not be hammered out this spring, the two sides would probably continue discussions throughout the year, Coulon said.

"Unless the Saints wanted to exercise the clause in the agreement that allows them to pay a penalty and leave," Coulon said.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press