Battle Brews in Washn. Over NASCAR, NBA Sonics Requests for $500 Million

Published May 1, 2007

Washington State officials are sharply divided over two proposals that would use tax dollars to subsidize a NASCAR race track and a basketball arena for the Seattle Supersonics of the National Basketball Association. The bills combined would dole out more than $500 million in taxpayer subsidies for the private sports facilities.

Florida-based International Speedway Corp. (ISC) and Sonics owner Clay Bennett are pushing hard to secure funding for their respective projects.

ISC officials are promoting an 83,500-seat race track as a revenue-generating economic development project. They say the track would attract crowds of out-of-state race fans and generate enough additional sales tax revenue to fund the state’s share of the project.

The Sonics are basing their case for taxpayer funding on the multi-use nature of the proposed facility.

Treasurer Slams Subsidies

Washington State Treasurer Mike Murphy (D) is railing against both proposals, calling them terrible deals for taxpayers. He says lawmakers need only look at Qwest Field, Washington’s most recent subsidized sports endeavor, to see what a poor return taxpayers received.

The state will pay about $600 million over 25 years to pay off $300 million it borrowed in 1997 to build the stadium for the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks, Murphy said. In the same period, the Seahawks will pay just $25 million in rent while collecting virtually all of the parking, ticket, and concessions revenue.

“We might as well dispense with calling these things public-private partnerships, because they really aren’t,” Murphy told the state’s House Finance Committee on February 20. One day later, in an interview with Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times, Murphy said, “The private side gets rich. The public side gets screwed.”

Locals Oppose Track

In Kitsap County, where the NASCAR track would be built, support is weak. None of the state legislators representing the Kitsap Peninsula supports using state dollars to finance the track. Most, including Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo), are actively opposed to the plan.

“I have always believed that public money should be for a public purpose. The track ultimately offers my county nothing,” Appleton said. “ISC has been offered 1,000 acres free in Lewis County with access to I-5. If ISC wants a track in Washington State, they should go there and pay their own way.”

Citizens Denied Say

Other legislators are troubled by the addition of an emergency clause in both the NASCAR and Sonics bills, which would deny citizens the right to a referendum. State Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) said he doesn’t understand the need for an emergency clause.

Speaker of the House Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) has also cooled to the idea of a publicly funded racetrack and basketball arena. He has told reporters other pressing needs such as education should take precedence.

Some Washington officials, particularly Lt. Gov. Brad Owen (D), are thrilled about the prospect of a NASCAR track in the state. Owen has urged skeptical lawmakers to consider the jobs, taxes, and tourist dollars the track could bring.

Commenting on the Sonics arena plan, state Sen. Margarita Prentice (D-Olympia), one of the project’s most enthusiastic supporters, has pointed to Denver’s Pepsi Center as a model for what a multi-use facility could bring to Washington State. The Pepsi Center was recently chosen as the site for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Private Money Works

But critics point out the Pepsi Center was developed entirely by private funds, and that multi-use facilities do not need public funding.

Others point out that ISC, which operates a dozen speedways nationwide, could easily fund the project without tax dollars. Support for the project dwindled further, according to a February 18 article in the Kitsap Sun, after legislators learned the ISC was willing to privately fund the entire construction bill for a track on Staten Island in New York City, but not in Washington.

“The state is not denying NASCAR or the Sonics access to permits to build their facilities. The only thing keeping these structures from being built is the misplaced demand that taxpayers foot the bill,” said Jason Mercier, director of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s Economic Policy Center.

Amber Gunn ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s Economic Policy Center in Olympia, Washington.

For more information …

“Tracking the Speedway: Some Lawmakers Have Gone From Wooing to Booing NASCAR Track Plan,” Kitsap Sun, February 18, 2007,,2403,BSUN_19088_5361054,00.html

“Sonics owners tell legislators team won’t stay unless building gets done,” Tacoma News Tribune, February 27, 2007,

“Murphy rips Sonics, NASCAR plans,” The Seattle Times, February 22, 2007,

“Racetrack debate goes round and round at Capitol,” The Seattle Times, February 21, 2007,

“Sonics’ proposal is about much more than a b-ball court,” The Seattle Times, February 9, 2007,