Public money spigot still open for stadiums

The streamers from his introductory news conference had barely come down from the rafters when new Hawks controlling owner Antony Ressler declared that his team needs to replace or renovate 16-year old Philips Arena.

Ressler didn’t come out and say he wants taxpayer money to do it because he didn’t have to say it. Mayor Kasim Reed jumped into action and said he was ready to discuss a “reasonable plan” to hand over public money to a private business with no commensurate financial benefit to his constituents.

(Actually, Reed pledged up to $150 million for a new Hawks arena before the team was sold to Ressler. He offered a concession to a negotiating partner that wasn't asking for it because the partner didn't yet exist.)

Some may consider Ressler’s immediate plea for a new arena to be a bit crass. They may see Reed’s immediate pledge of taxpayer money as distasteful.

Personally, I admire Ressler’s restraint, and I appreciate Reed for not wasting everyone’s time by pretending he was going to put up a fight.

Sports franchise owners don’t have to be shy as Resssler was about demanding public subsidies because they almost always get them. Politicians eager to brag about any accomplishment or fearful of backlash for teams leaving hardly ever tell owners no.

The Falcons and Braves already dipped into public coffers to pay for their new digs. The Hawks want the same. Team owners everywhere would be dumb not to get in on the hustle.

They just have to say they want the public to pay, and politicians eventually will pony up. Tightening public budgets don’t slow the spigot. It happens everywhere.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the alleged fiscal conservative, prodded the state legislature to approve up to $450 million for a new Bucks arena. As usual, it was a bipartisan boondoggle: Democratic state legislators from Milwaukee endorsed the deal, and county Democrats added more cash to the pile of money for the team’s owners, two hedge-fund billionaires.

In San Diego, city and county leaders offered $350 million to the Chargers so they don’t bolt for Los Angeles. The team and the NFL swiftly shot down the proposal because that’s not enough cash. (Polls show the majority of San Diego citizens oppose tax money for a stadium, but public will rarely factors into these things.)

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has pledged about $400 million to the Rams, and the city and county added $100 million. They have yet to find sources for all of that money as Rams owner Stan Kroenke eyes building his own stadium in LA (imagine that).

Leave it to The Onion to produce satire that is only slightly less absurd than the truth. A recent headline: “St. Louis Rams Threaten To Leave Town Unless Taxpayers Personally Build Stadium With Bare Hands.” The punchline: “At press time, sources confirmed that Kroenke’s proposal was unanimously approved by the St. Louis city council.”

Listen, I’m not saying it’s inherently wrong to spend taxpayer money on stadiums. If it’s a good financial deal for the public, then go ahead and build it. The problem is that no stadium deal ever meets that standard, which should be the only consideration.

You can’t get economists to agree on many things, but there is consensus among them that governments should eliminate subsidies to sports franchises. A survey by Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw found that more in his profession agree with that than agree that large federal budget deficits are bad for the economy.

The public infrastructure crumbles as taxpayers finance private infrastructure for billionaires. Budgets are squeezed, but lawmakers aim to please franchise owners. No one seems to care, not even those people who howl about tax money being spent on things that have obvious and widespread public benefits.

There is hope in Oakland. Officials there so far have told Raiders owner Mark Davis they won’t help him pay for a new stadium. The Raiders responded by seeking the LA option, and still Oakland officials stayed pat.

That’s a good development, but sadly, it’s the exception. Even sadder is that refusing to make an obviously bad public investment to benefit a wealthy franchise owner is notable.

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