Guest Editorial from Mike Dudgeon, State Representative District 25, Forsyth County/Johns Creek
As a state legislator in tough economic times, I get the difficult job of telling people no. When the Department of Natural Resources officers who have seen department cuts of 25% and are overworked and underpaid come to me on the ropes at the House, I say the budget is tight. When the GBI agents who underpaid compared to their peers look me in the eye and tell me they are spending money to train new recruits only to have them leave for higher paying jobs, I say the budget is tight. When teachers tell me that they are furloughed several days a year, have more kids in their classes, and pay much higher insurance rates, I say the budget is tight. When the Governor gets behind proven jail diversion programs that reduce re-arrest rate for non-violent drug offenders and juvenile delinquents, we cannot find the money to do it statewide. Like Godzilla in Tokyo, we have a Medicaid Monster that is eating and shredding the state budget, even without including the siren song expansion offered by Obamacare. In this environment, here now come the Falcons and World Congress Center seeking taxpayer contributions for a retractable roof stadium.
First let me confess I am a huge football fan, growing up in Tuscaloosa in the national championship heydays of the 70’s and Bear Bryant. My middle son has a Matt Ryan Fathead in his room and I have supported the Falcons from the decades of mediocrity to the current glory days of the Smith/Dimitroff/Ryan era. Personally I would love to go to football games under the open roof on a glorious crisp October day in Atlanta.
I also acknowledge some of the “pro” arguments are reasonable. We are in a historically low interest rate cycle and construction costs are still depressed, thus starting soon may save significant project dollars. Having the state of the art stadium of the Southeast certainly would not hurt for luring events to Atlanta. If tax money is to be used, a hotel motel tax is the best choice as a large share is paid by out of state visitors.
All of that being said, a $1 billion stadium with at least $300 million of taxpayer money is not a good idea anytime soon. Taxpayer investments in stadia almost never are repaid, and estimates of their impacts are overblown and ignore alternative uses of entertainment dollars that would stay in the economy. Dr. Benjamin Flowers, a Georgia Tech professor and expert on stadium financing, testified with me in a recent public forum that almost all academic studies bear this out. He also pointed out that the biggest impact of new stadium for a NFL team is to increase the franchise net worth and the revenue dollars per attending person. That is all nice and good but is not the taxpayers business.
Let us not forget also we have a great facility in the Georgia Dome that is only 20 years old. It attracts every level of sporting event, including the SEC Championship game, Chik-fil-A bowl, and Final Four basketball. The only major suitor we seem to be missing is the Super Bowl, and that is hardly a reason to spend such a huge amount of money in brutal budget times. The Georgia Dome is not even paid for yet, and had a $300 million renovation only six years ago. Here is a good analogy for throwing away the Dome and building a new stadium now. Imagine a guy who got laid off from his corporate desk job and is now working part time at Target and is struggling with basic expenses. He decides that is the time to trade in his perfectly running 2006 Acura and buy a new 2013 Mercedes.
Some of the details are important to understand where we go from here. Before I joined the House, the Legislature authorized the Atlanta City Council to use up to $300 million of hotel/motel tax for this project. The World Congress Center Authority currently has a borrowing limit of $200 million and wants to expand it, and there are important issues of whether those bonds would be backed by state taxpayers. There are also related road projects and an almost certain sales tax exemption on construction materials. Even with all of that, the only decision likely to come through the legislature next year is a borrowing limit change because the other items are already in statute. It may end up that the only option next year for those of us concerned about this project will be to insist on no further state taxpayer commitment either with bonds, credits, or budget items. We must wait and see a proposed deal and make a call on those details.
I am passionate about making the “no” argument because I think in many ways it goes to the trust problem between the citizens and all levels of government. It is very difficult to justify to our citizen who is under enormous economic pressure himself that there is no money for his kids teacher, none to widen the nightmare two lane road he commutes on, none to fund a drug court to keep his young adult son out of jail for a first offense, but we can help fund a $1 billion stadium which primarily benefits a very lucrative business. In fact we tell the voter we are so broke he should have voted for a 1% sales tax for roads and his property taxes are probably going up. This kind of contrast makes people perceive that their tax money is not being used wisely and the the system is “rigged.” I don’t need to tell you that perception is reality in politics, and as the majority party in the state we Republicans need to be sensitive to this.
Polls done by Atlanta TV stations show between 65-75% of the public opposed to this plan. We should drop the new stadium and revisit much later down the road. If this happened, the Legislature could enable Atlanta to spend the hotel motel tax on other infrastructure projects that are badly needed or to relieve other taxes. If the project does move forward, at at absolute minimum the state should not back any bonds or offer any tax money or incentives beyond the previously committed hotel tax. Georgia needs to show that we are not Washington DC, and we have the guts to make tough decisions and say no to “nice to have” spending.