If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’re probably already familiar with my stance on public subsidies for sports teams. It has perhaps become more hardline over the years, as civic coffers have dried up and redevelopment died out. The ideas are pretty simple, and I don’t expect everyone to think the same way I do:
- Public money for stadia in the form of cash, loans, or bonds – whether or not secured by upfront taxes or fees – should never happen in this day and age.
- All new or renovated venues that do not require public money are generally good, as long as they don’t come with significant kickbacks for the team and developers.
- Any public assistance that goes beyond processing permits or planning work (providing land, money, or other benefits) should require a public vote over the terms of the deal.
Note that I haven’t specified dollar values for anything. That means that it doesn’t matter if a municipality provides $1 million or $1 billion in assistance – any assistance merits a referendum. There is no gray area at work.
As currently structured right now the Sacramento Kings’ new arena will not go to the ballot box. The City Council and Mayor Kevin Johnson have argued that a referendum isn’t necessary isn’t because no new general taxes are being levied. Councilman Steve Hansen (no relation to Seattle investor Chris Hansen – we’ll get to that in a bit) even argued in a forum earlier this week that because Sacramento’s airport received $1 billion in publicly-funded improvements without a vote, the arena shouldn’t either. That is utterly absurd. First of all, an airport in a major city is a pretty important piece of public infrastructure, incomparable to an arena, which is a luxury. Secondly, it’s foolish to use third grade-level reasoning to justify a political move such as this (“My friend’s parents let him stay out late, why can’t I?”). Not voting on airport improvements was arguably a bad move in the first place. Not voting on an arena would only compound that error.
An anti-arena group, STOP, emerged as the only entity with enough cash to fund a petition drive that would’ve put the arena on a ballot. STOP’s origins were murky, as it was connected to Loeb & Loeb, a Southern California law firm associated with the Maloof family (former Kings owners). Initially that led to accusations that the Maloofs funded STOP. It turns out that the aforementioned Chris Hansen had actually funded STOP to the tune of $100,000. The non-disclosure and solicitation of the contribution(s) were all state campaign-reporting violations. Hansen eventually admitted his part in the subterfuge and apologized, explaining that he wouldn’t fund the campaign further. Arena advocates are rightly incensed and not satisfied with Hansen’s apology, going as far as asking the hedge fund manager to pull back all gathered signatures. In addition, STOP pulled some shady tactics in misrepresenting aspects of the arena plan, which has caused several thousand petition signers to request their names be removed.
Messy, right? This brouhaha didn’t start with Hansen or pro-arena forces. It started with the need for a referendum. Since the City decided the arena didn’t need one, the anti-arena political machine geared up to get enough signatures to force one. That got another group going in defense of the plan, trying to head off the petition drive at the pass. All of it, and I mean all of it, is unsavory. There’s a very simple, easy way to resolve this once and for all: just allow the referendum to take place. Even if the delay counts for several months it shouldn’t materially impact the construction plan, which has numerous pieces to work out including a potential eminent domain land acquisition. If the pro-arena forces are as confident as they say they are about the plan, there’s no reason to skip this crucial civic step. Mayor KJ has called the arena the biggest project in the City’s history. Shouldn’t the biggest project in the City’s history be confirmed by plebiscite? Forget the dirty politics, the real and phony outrage. Let it all air out in a real campaign. Sacramento voters at least deserve that amount of respect.
Plus, let’s not forget that one famous Sacramentan was caught on the other side of this divide. Last year I wrote about Gregg Lukenbill’s plot to kill the original China Basin ballpark in 1989 with mailers targeting San Francisco voters, all part of a plan to coax the team northeast along I-80 to land next to ARCO (Sleep Train) Arena. (An even more revealing account can be found at The California Fix.) Why no outrage? Because that’s part of the game. It’s also part of the past. After all, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan certainly picked up a few votes after the revelation that Lew Wolff donated $25k to presumed frontrunner Dom Perata’s campaign in 2010. How’d that work out in the end for Oakland?
Eventually, San Francisco got new ownership in that were willing to spend their own money on a ballpark, with minimal city assistance (land, infrastructure). Even that plan ended up in a referendum, one that won in a landslide. Santa Clara’s 49ers stadium plans received legitimacy thanks to their victory at the ballot box, as did San Jose’s arena plans. Meanwhile, Oakland pushed Mt. Davis (and arena renovations) through without a city or county vote to disastrous effects, and pols are hinting at even more stadium plans that won’t require referenda. Are these people nuts? Have some respect for your citizens, politicians. Allow for campaigns. Allow the citizens and fans to be fully educated on the issues. You owe them that much. Sure, campaigns are expensive. The billionaires and millionaires who want these projects can afford campaign costs, they’ve seen and done it before. Chances are that they’ll outspend opponents 10:1. They have the resources. That’s fine. That’s the way the process works. The track record, at least in this state, is that allowing proper vetting of stadium projects is good for all concerned. If stadium and arena proponents aren’t willing to accede to a referendum request, it’s worth wondering what they’re hiding.