D.C. Councilwoman Stands against Taxpayer-Funded Stadium–For a While

Published February 1, 2005

Major League Baseball (MLB) was thrown a curveball on December 15 as District of Columbia Councilwoman Linda Cropp (D) tried to help local taxpayers by changing the financing rules for a proposed new stadium.

Instead of approving a new baseball stadium to be wholly taxpayer-funded, Cropp persuaded the council to pass an amendment requiring a partnership between taxpayers and private enterprise. Cropp’s amendment called for at least 50 percent private funding. The amendment passed by a 10-3 vote.

But the uprising came to an end just a week later, on December 21, when the DC City Council voted 7-6 to approve the move of the Montreal Expos to the city for the 2005 season, without the requirement for 50 percent private funding for the stadium. Cropp voted with the majority, even though the private funding requirement she championed was deleted. The team will become the Washington Nationals.

Opposed a “Lopsided Deal”

Until Cropp’s amendment was approved, it had looked like a lead-pipe cinch that the Expos would move. The last MLB team to play in the nation’s capital–the Washington Senators–moved out after the 1972 season.

In presenting her amendment, Cropp said she would rather lose the new baseball club than “allow the city to be victimized by a lopsided deal,” according to a December 16 article in the Baltimore Sun by reporter Jeff Barker. Cropp said she hoped for the return of Major League Baseball, “but not at any cost.”

The city had been promising to fully fund the cost of building the 41,000-seat stadium. Some estimates put the price tag in excess of $550 million, including $25 million to pay for renovations to the existing RFK Stadium. The team would play there while the new stadium is built.

MLB responded to Cropp’s proposal by threatening to scuttle the Expos’ move to DC. The new team was ordered to cease its business and promotional activities immediately.

MLB President and Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy issued a statement a few hours after the DC council’s vote, denouncing the private funding requirement as “wholly unacceptable” and stating the amendment was inconsistent with the original agreement.

DC Mayor Perseveres

Washington, DC Mayor Anthony Williams (D), who negotiated the original agreement, told reporters he would keep working for a solution.

“We’ve got 15-16 days to try to keep this alive,” Williams told reporters.

Michael Wilbon, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote on December 16, “It’s a great idea that private money finance at least 50 percent of the cost of a new riverfront baseball stadium,” but he blasted the timing of Cropp’s move.

“It’s not like the negotiations for a new stadium caught Cropp or anybody else by surprise,” Wilbon wrote, pointing out the city had long lobbied for another Major League Baseball franchise.

Amendment Favored Outside DC

Outside of the District, support apparently ran in favor of the Cropp amendment.

Ron Rapoport, a sports writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, praised Cropp for protecting DC taxpayers.

“I wouldn’t know Linda Cropp if I bumped into her in the street, but I sure would like to vote for her,” Rapoport said in a December 16 column.

In a December 16 editorial in The Roanoke [VA] Times, Cropp also was applauded. “Cropp proposed and the council accepted a requirement that private financing provide at least half the cost of a new stadium. How radical–demanding that private enterprise invest some of its own money in itself.”

Temple Stark, owner and operator of Political State Report (http://www.polstate.com), also praised the amendment. “The D.C. Council is protecting its taxpayers and doing its duty to run a tight budget,” he wrote. “Other municipalities should do the same, shouldn’t they?”

Not Giving Up … Entirely

The City Council and Cropp pledged to continue to solicit private funds for the new stadium. Cropp has said private money could conceivably cover $280 million of the cost.

“We are not giving up the whole quest for private financing,” said Cropp spokesperson Mark F. Johnson to the Washington Times in a story dated December 23. “Linda Cropp is still sticking to her guns that we find at least 50 percent private financing, if not more.”

MLB agreed to share the cost of premiums for insurance that would be purchased to cover potential stadium cost overruns. The league also reduced, from $19 million to $5.3 million, the penalty that would be assessed against the District if the ballpark is not ready for play by March 1, 2008.

Even after compromising her position, Cropp attracted praise from some corners. “I think that her digging in her heels at the point at which she did enriched the debate,” Sister Mary Ann Luby of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless told Washington Times reporter S.A. Miller on December 23. The clinic was a member of No D.C. Taxes for Baseball, a coalition of groups opposed to tax funding of the stadium. “It just didn’t have the outcome I wanted,” Luby said.

Williams officially signed the agreement between the District and MLB on December 29, 2004. “This is one of my proudest days as mayor,” he said at the signing.

John W. Skorburg ([email protected]) is associate editor of Budget & Tax News and a visiting lecturer in economics at the University of Illinois-Chicago.