Braves: Public funding of stadium serves public purpose

Attorneys for the Atlanta Braves say the use of taxpayer-backed bonds to pay for construction of professional sports stadiums is nationally recognized as a legitimate use of public funds, and the millions of dollars in profit the team will reap does not make public funding unconstitutional.

That’s according to a brief the team’s lawyers filed with the Georgia Supreme Court Thursday.

The county’s plan to issue up to $397 million in bonds to pay the public share of constructing SunTrust Park has been appealed by three citizens to the state’s high court, which has set a Feb. 3 hearing on the issue.

The government’s “ability to issue bonds for recreational purposes is broad and well-settled,” the Braves’ brief says. “In the 20th and 21st centuries, financing and constructing sports stadiums and related facilities has repeatedly been held to be a public purpose.

“Opponents of stadium bond financing often point to private benefits in an attempt to undermine the public purpose — and ultimately the constitutionality — of the bonds that have been used. Courts have routinely rejected those arguments because the existence of private benefits is not dispositive — in fact, it is expected.”

Tucker Hobgood, an attorney who is one of the people to appeal a Cobb Superior Court judge’s approval of the county’s bond plan, noted Thursday that the Braves do not site any Georgia cases in their brief.

“They didn’t cite a single Georgia case or argue specifically about Georgia law,” Hobgood said.

That ground was covered in a brief filed by county attorneys in December.

But the Braves do say that Georgia law allows the government entities involved in the Braves deal to issue bonds for recreational purposes.

“Ultimately, public financing of these facilities has been permitted for the simple reason that stadiums serve a public purpose,” the Braves’ brief says. “What constitutes a public purpose is not subject to rigid guidelines, but instead only to a common initiative to improve societal well-being. The concept is fluid, depending upon what the people expect and want their government to do for the society as a whole.

“Each municipality may have its own reasons — economy, tourism, public desire, or city profile — but the end result is almost universally a finding that a public purpose is served …. as long as a recreational benefit of a reasonably general character is conferred on a significant part of the public.

“Any other arguments are simply beside the point.”

County attorneys also argued in their briefs that their plan to issue bonds without a public vote is legal, because the bond issuance isn’t considered “debt within the meaning of the Georgia Constitution.”

Hobgood said that argument “defies common sense.”

An agreement between the county and the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority says the authority will issue the bonds, which will be backed by a variety of county revenues, including county-wide property taxes, a new property tax on businesses in the Cumberland area, a new rental car tax and existing hotel-motel tax.

The agreement also says the county will raise property taxes countywide to pay off the debt, if necessary.

The Braves’ brief says that Georgia law allows the arrangement and “there is no reason to second-guess this decision.”