Special Interests Push for Sports Stadium Subsidies

Published January 1, 2009

With Washington state facing a projected $3.2 billion budget deficit—the difference between growing revenues and even-faster spending growth—one might expect lawmakers to focus on how best to use the existing rise in tax revenues to provide the core functions of government.

If special interests get their way, however, taxpayer financing of Seattle-area stadium renovations will be among the “priorities” competing for tax dollars.

In one egregious example, although Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) has asked the University of Washington to cut spending by $10 million to help close the state’s budget gap, the school is proceeding with plans for a $300 million renovation of Husky Stadium.

University officials are hoping to split the cost between private sources and tax dollars, meaning taxpayers might be asked to contribute about $150 million to the football stadium project.

Receptive ‘Liberal’ Legislature

Why do university officials think they will get the legislature’s approval to use tax dollars during an economic downturn filled with calls for belt-tightening? The answer lies in the school’s belief a “liberal” state legislature will be receptive to Keynesian economic arguments.

Newly appointed Athletic Director Scott Woodward told The Seattle Times, “It is a tough sell, but the legislature is pretty liberal, and I’m preaching Keynesian economics now.”

Keynesian economics theorizes that increasing government spending will spur lasting economic growth.

Possible Basketball Subsidy

The university is not alone in its efforts for taxpayer-funded stadium renovations.

Seattle basketball enthusiasts are still upset over the failed effort last year to convince lawmakers to authorize taxpayer-financed renovations of the city’s Key Arena to retain the SuperSonics—now the Oklahoma City Thunder—of the National Basketball Association.

They are trying again to secure taxpayer funds, this time $75 million, to lure a new NBA team to Seattle.

That effort comes as the city’s voters are being asked to approve a $73 million levy to upgrade the city’s Pike Place Market and a $146 million public parks levy while King County, the largest county in the state, is sending out layoff notices to 255 employees because of budget problems.

Core Functions Neglected

Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur sees all this as a severe case of misplaced priorities among city leaders.

In an October 28 column Brodeur wrote, “I understand that professional sports are supposed to be a diversion, a release. But they shouldn’t release the city’s decision makers from doing the right thing for all of us—not just the ones who can afford to watch tall men play ball. [Deputy Mayor Tim] Ceis needs to set his hoop dreams aside and make the kind of tax moves that will help us all sleep at night.”

This is a point shared by local policy experts who hope elected officials will shift their focus away from special-interest spending and concentrate on the core functions of government.

Paul Guppy, research director at the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center, summed up the skeptical view of how the city handles its budget: “This is a city council that spends $5 million on automatic public toilets that don’t work, but can’t find enough money to take care of public parks.”

Jason Mercier ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center in Olympia, Washington.