Monday, September 28, 2015

Reiboldt: Should taxpayers have to foot the bill for billionaire's stadium?

(From Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho)

Periodically I like to revisit previously-discussed topics and follow their movement on the legal or political track. Today, I want to share some of the latest information about the much talked-about new St. Louis Rams stadium.

As you may remember, the current facility used by the St. Louis Rams football team is the Jones Dome, a structure the Rams team moved into in 1995 (though the Jones Dome name wasn’t attached to it until 2002, when the Edward Jones company purchased the naming rights to it for $2.65 million annually). In 1995 there were thirty-year bonds issued to pay for the new stadium, with the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County each paying $6 million per year for thirty years and the state of Missouri funding $12 million a year over a thirty-year period. When the Rams organization moved to St. Louis in 1995, they signed a thirty-year lease to play in the Dome, but the terms of the agreement allowed the team to move after the 2014 season if the Dome was not rated as a first-tiered NFL facility. That facility is today considered to be not only less that first-tiered, it is considered to be a poor NFL stadium.

While the Jones Dome structure is owned by the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, it was built with tax dollars and is still dependent on public monies. In efforts to improve the stadium and bring it up to the team’s desired standard, the Stadium Authority offered a $124 million improvement plan—including a larger scoreboard and better seating—with the Rams picking up approximately half the cost. The team countered with a proposal for upgrades at an estimated cost of $700 million, an amount that includes their plan for a new retractable roof. Following arbitration, a decision favoring the Rams was reached that allowed the team to break their lease following the 2014 season. They could either move or remain in St. Louis on a year-by-year contract.

Though Los Angeles wants the Rams team to move there, Governor Nixon wants to keep in it St. Louis, either by building a new stadium at a cost that could possibly reach $1 billion or by making renovations at a cost of approximately $700 million. It will be 2025 before all the bonds are paid off on the existing structure and legislators are very reluctant to forge ahead with approving such an expensive project when the Jones Dome is still usable.

The Rams’ owner, billionaire Stan Kroenke of Wal-Mart fame, wants a new stadium; yet it appears he wants Missouri’s taxpayers to foot the bill, or at least a multi-million dollar chunk of it. Though Missouri statute clearly states that “certain revenue projects to be funded by revenue bonds shall be approved by the General Assembly,” there seems to be some problem with that now, as the governor is moving ahead on his own without the approval of the General Assembly or the voters, stating that he doesn’t need it.

Within the last year, Governor Jay Nixon has been in the news in regard to the subject of the propose new sports stadium in St. Louis. In February, he announced that utility and railroad companies— Ameren Corp and Terminal Railroad Association— agreed to move their power lines and rail tracks to allow for construction on a new stadium. Earlier this summer, six lawmakers filed suit against Nixon, saying he did not have the legal authority to extend portions of the bonds on the existing stadium to help finance a new stadium, one that could possibly be built on riverfront property in St. Louis, and one whose construction plans appear to be moving ahead without legislative approval. Apparently the governor and the NFL have been in contact regarding this plan (completely going around the legislature), but Nixon doesn’t seem to be worried that perhaps he is overstepping his authority. To help support his stand, he is arguing the new stadium would be of benefit to a section of the St. Louis Riverfront area that is in great need of rehab; he also talks about the boon of new jobs and the much needed revenue this would bring to the area.

No one can argue that a new stadium wouldn’t be nice, or that areas of the St. Louis Riverfront wouldn’t benefit from a new facelift, or that the revenue brought in from the project’s jobs won’t be appreciated. What can logically be argued, however, are questions about its constitutionality, its legality, and the apparent lack of financial accountability to Missouri’s taxpayers. If our state’s financial resources were unlimited, there might not be much backlash to the governor’s actions. Unfortunately, we are not “rolling in dough,” and though a new stadium would indeed be nice, can it be upheld as necessary? Do we allow any elected official to proclaim by his or her actions that they aren’t obligated to follow our state’s legislative process? And do Missouri’s taxpayers need to be held accountable for a very expensive structure to house a billionaire’s football team?

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