An incentive plan to keep the Chicago White Sox from moving to Florida narrowly was approved Thursday in the Illinois General Assembly after a sponsor warned, "We're about to turn the lights out in Comiskey Park."
Final passage came on a 60-55 vote in the House after a tense roll call during which Gov. James R. Thompson worked the House floor in search of votes.The measure, which could cut $60 million from the team's cost of occupying a new state-funded stadium, earlier cleared the Senate on a 30-26 vote - the bare majority required for passage.
The House action was tinged with controversy. The roll call was begun just before a midnight deadline after which the bill would have required 71 votes for passage.
House Majority Leader Jim McPike, presiding over the chamber, declared that the bill was passed "at 11:59 p.m.." But other clocks indicated it was after midnight, and a computer printout of the vote produced immediately after the roll call was dated July 1.
"You bet I was worried," a relieved Thompson told reporters. "Wouldn't you be worried? Weren't you watching the votes? This is a political resurrection from the dead, a baseball resurrection from the dead."
After the vote, the White Sox issued a statement, saying the team was "elated."
"Today's legislative victory is the result of the dedicated efforts of the entire White Sox organization, numerous public officials and loyal Sox fans," the team said.
In a brief Senate debate, backers of the plan argued that losing the White Sox would be a moral and economic blow to Chicago, and that it wouldn't compete for funds with education and other state programs.
"This is the only chance to save the Sox, or tomorrow they're going to be in St. Petersburg," said Sen. Wiliam Marovitz, D-Chicago.
"It's the last of the ninth," added sponsoring Sen. Timothy Degnan, D-Chicago. "We're about to turn the lights out in Comiskey Park."
"As a native Chicagoan, I'm delighted," Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth said. "This is a great day for the state of Illinois, the people of Chicago and the White Sox. The Legislature's approval is a signifcant demonstration of support for the White Sox and two-team baseball in Chicago."
"There was enormous pressure to keep them there," St. Petersburg Mayor Robert Ulrich said. "It's a huge economic benefit to the state and they know it. I thought that in the final hours of horse trading anything could happen and it did.
"We will simply go ahead and seek an expansion franchise as we have determined to do all along."
In the Illinois House, opponents warned their colleagues that they would face dire political consequences if they supported the White Sox plan while schools and other government programs are short of funds.
"What in the name of heaven are we doing!" shouted Rep. John Dunn, D-Decatur. "Let's shut this place down and go home and forget the White Sox!"
Earlier, the Senate narrowly approved another White Sox-related measure, one authorizing a state-run buyout of the team. Sen. Greg Zito's plan would allow the state agency building a new White Sox stadium to sell stock to the public, raising about $60 million to buy the team.
"The people don't really care if the owners move out of the state of Illinois," said Sen. Robert Raica, R-Chicago. "The key issue is that the White Sox stay."
The team buyout bill cleared the Senate on a 36-16 vote - precisely the three-fifths majority required for passage - and headed for the House. But that bill wasn't of interest to Gov. Thompson and White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has said the team's owners have no interest in selling.
Another version of Zito's proposal was approved earlier this month, but he revised it to remove provisions allowing the use of tax funds for the purchase.
Meanwhile, a House-Senate conference committee drafted final language of an incentive plan that would cut as much as $60 million from the team's cost of occupying a new state-financed stadium.