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What's wrong with Pawlenty's stadium push? Everything.

Since he became governor, Teflon Tim Pawlenty has steadfastly driven Minnesota politics to the far right by shredding the state's social safety net while running roughshod over our tradition of fiscally prudent government investments. But the governor's resounding triumph during last year's legislative session--in which Pawlenty "solved" a $4.6 billion budget deficit by decimating dozens of programs, raiding

one-time monetary sources such as the tobacco fund, and forcing tax increases down on local units of government--has apparently emboldened him to believe he can get away with anything. That's the only way to explain his ill-timed, half-baked push for a billion-dollar pair of stadiums, a policy proposal that is as long on hubris as it is short on common sense.

It is fair to say that the notion of passing legislation to build one new ballpark, let alone two or three, would not have any currency during this session without Pawlenty's advocacy. It was the governor who created a committee to solicit stadium proposals from local units of government, who stocked the committee with stadium proponents to ensure the proposals would be treated sympathetically, and who appointed his chief of staff to chair the committee as a signal that the issue was a high priority on his legislative agenda.

Rep. Ron Abrams, a Minnetonka Republican, is among a number of legislators viewing the governor's stadium spin with skepticism
Jayme Halbritter
Rep. Ron Abrams, a Minnetonka Republican, is among a number of legislators viewing the governor's stadium spin with skepticism

To further punctuate his position, the governor then publicly declared that he would not allow the baseball Twins or the football Vikings to leave town on his watch. This forceful shove from the state's most powerful public official is the only reason the stadium issue is part of this year's political landscape.

Yet despite Pawlenty's heavy hand, the chances of any stadium bill passing the legislature this session currently appear to be slim and none. Indeed, the arguments against building new ballparks right now are so voluminous and compelling--in general or particular, in terms of politics or practicality--that it's hard to fathom why the governor has chosen to throw his weight behind the issue. Why is funding a billion bucks worth of ballparks a bad idea? Let us count the ways.

 

State and local government coffers can't absorb the hit.

The carnage from last year's draconian budget cuts is still reverberating throughout the state. Hundreds of teachers have been laid off, thousands of citizens have been priced out of health care, and nearly every state agency is showing the strain of coping with a greater demand for services with fewer resources. What's more, unless the economy shows a miraculous improvement, state lawmakers are staring at a deficit in next year's biennial budget of more than a billion dollars, this time without any tobacco fund or bureaucratic sleights-of-hand to help bail them out.

At the local level, mayors and county commissioners are reeling from the huge cost shifts and tax increases thrust upon them by Pawlenty's last budget "fix." Despite these hardships, beleaguered citizens who have seen their services diminished and their local tax bill rise are now being asked to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to bankroll new homes for fat-cat owners of sports franchises.

 

There are no consequences for inaction.

It has been a long-standing tradition of professional sports team owners to blackmail taxpayers by threatening to move their franchises if public monies for new stadiums aren't provided. This year, Pawlenty himself did the owners' dirty work by raising the specter of the Twins and Vikings leaving town. But for many years, Minnesotans have successfully called this bluff by denying stadium handouts, a demonstration of political willpower that seems increasingly shrewd in light of recent events regarding ballpark funding in other cities. Publicly financed baseball stadiums in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh have not delivered on their proposed benefits, and the most recent ballpark deal, in St. Louis, where the team's tradition is richer and its fan base more loyal, has been brokered almost exclusively with private money.

The threat often wielded by local ballpark boosters, that the Twins will be contracted by Major League Baseball, is becoming more and more specious. The franchise in Montreal is in such a shambles that it is operated in caretaker fashion by the league and plays "home" games in two locales, yet it is still not certain that it will be contracted in 2006. By contrast, the Twins have won two consecutive pennants and currently own one of the game's best records. How embarrassing--and thus improbable--would it be for the barons of the game to shutter the team?

As for the Vikings, they have an ironclad lease to play in the Metrodome until 2011. There is no compelling reason why legislators can't wait at least a year to see if the state's finances improve before underwriting a new football stadium. Besides, if the Vikings get a new facility, taxpayers must either continue bearing the cost of maintaining the Dome for the U of M Gophers, or add funding for a new college football stadium to the tab.

 

Bottom line, it's a bad investment.

During testimony before the state's House Tax Committee last week, Arthur Rolnick, the research director at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, exposed the canard that underwriting stadiums was a sound economic investment of public resources. Citing a sheaf of studies on the issue, Rolnick declared that the fiscal benefit to communities who help build ballparks does not justify the expenditure, particularly when compared to the myriad of other needs that could be addressed with the money. The biggest bang for the buck, Rolnick repeatedly emphasized, could be obtained by investing in programs assisting at-risk children ages five and under, which would result in an economic return of 12 percent above inflation.

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