Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Land for a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons was stripped from next year’s budget by legislators before it was sent to the Governor for his signature. The $10 Million requested in the Governor’s plan had become a bit much for legislators tired of answering questions about the stadium’s need and its budgetary priority.
The $10 Million was a relative sweetener for an already rich deal, and is unlikely to halt progress on separating Georgians from $400 Million of their tax dollars. The simple fact that many Georgians do not understand is that the enabling legislation for this gift was passed by the 2010 legislature. Amid a backdrop of scandals with House leadership, the legislature pushed an extension of Atlanta’s hotel/motel tax out until 2050.
Legislators, including leadership, are responding to concerns of diverting nearly a half billion dollars available for infrastructure improvements into a stadium which will duplicate the services of the Georgia Dome which is expected to remain next door. Their answer is frankly disingenuous. They flatly state that “they will not support any proposal brought to them to authorize a new stadium.” They say this hoping you are not aware that the funding is already authorized.
Barring legislative action, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority has the ability to donate $400 Million of your tax dollars to one of Georgia’s wealthiest citizens. Your gift in return? You will be able to watch a Superbowl once in the next 10 years from your home and see some local sights on television. The legislators who look the other way as this deal continues to progress will likely be able to score a free ticket to sit inside should they still be in a position of power.
And as for the $10 Million for land? That can likely re-appear quietly in the future. It’s not like the Atlanta Housing Authority must sell it next week, or that the state doesn’t have mechanisms to make relatively small purchases. Just last month the state received about $100 Million from a legal settlement with mortgage servicers to be used to benefit solutions for Georgia’s housing problem.
The money was instead directed to the rainy day fund. It should be fairly easy to make it rain at the appropriate time to benefit housing the Falcons in an open air stadium. This will likely have to wait until after July’s T-SPLOST tax votes, however.
The $400 Million of hotel/motel tax money would generate $720 Million worth of transit projects if redirected to needs identified by State and regional leaders as critical, must have projects vital to the region’s future. It could pay for the MARTA rail extension through South DeKalb to Stonecrest Mall. DeKalb County’s NAACP Chairman has said he will actively work against the T-SPLOST passage in Atlanta if South DeKalb rail is not included. Hopefully, South DeKalb residents will enjoy taking a bus to the new stadium 8 days per year just as much as they would like a direct rail commute into Atlanta every day.
In an earlier column on this subject, I unfavorably compared Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank’s half billion dollar shakedown to Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus’ charitable gift which brought Atlanta the Georgia Aquarium. A note from Blank’s PR firm objected, noting that Blank’s “investment” in the stadium should be compared favorably to Marcus’ donation for the aquarium. It takes a good bit of chutzpah to hope that the reader won’t notice that a charitable gift with no financial return is quite different from an investment where one expects a sizable return – a return that depends on your scarce tax dollars.
The simple fact of the matter is this: Georgians are about to be subjected to a massive PR campaign to convince us that if we do not vote to raise our own taxes, Atlanta faces becoming a second tier city with respect to economic development and quality of life. The presumption of this campaign is that there are no additional monies available to handle this critical infrastructure spending. Arthur Blank will be holding a reception next week to raise money for the effort. Checks from $1,000 to $250,000 will be accepted if you feel compelled to contribute.
Yet Georgia has already cleared a path to give away money that would represent $720 Million of infrastructure if used appropriately – more than 10 percent of the total Atlanta region project list. Instead, that money will be used not to advance economic development, but to bring Atlanta a Superbowl. Once.
If the legislature wants voters to take emergency pleas for tax increases seriously, it should first demonstrate good stewardship of existing revenue sources. Giving away nearly a half billion tax dollars to stroke a billionaire’s ego instead of addressing priorities is alone enough reason to vote no on T-SPLOST. Telling those that ask that they will oppose a request for a stadium knowing full well that their approval is not needed is a dereliction of duty, and a mockery of taxpayers’ valid concerns.
There are a few short days remaining of this legislative session. The Georgia General Assembly must take proactive action to stop taxpayer funds from building a new stadium. Anything less makes the public pleas for tax increases via referendum a cynical ploy to increase the size and scope of government.