The sports machine

February 10, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THE legendary United Press International sportswriter Grantland Rice once observed that the only difference between the political arena and the locker room is the smell of wintergreen.

If Mr. Rice were alive and writing today, he'd have to amend the thought to include the perfumed scent of money.

In the catchpenny world of politics and sports, pork and pigskin toddle hard in pocket. There's $160.5 million in loose change lying around that has legislators and sports mandarins behaving like buzzards around road kill. And the destiny of that pot of gold turns on whether an NFL team -- any NFL team -- points its yard markers toward Baltimore by Feb. 14.

The chances of Baltimore luring an existing big-time franchise are slim to none.

So Jack Kent Cooke, the irascible owner of the Washington Redskins, wants to move his team to Laurel and build a new stadium with his own money.

To accomplish this, Mr. Cooke bought enough acreage from Joe DeFrancis to build the plant, which in turn helped Mr. DeFrancis buy out his nettlesome partners at Laurel and Pimlico.

Mr. DeFrancis, for his part, wants to build a track in Virginia. And to minimize competition, he plans to abbreviate the spring meet at Pimlico. The racing days at Pimlico are owned and assigned by the state and contribute to Maryland's general revenue fund. But by a quirk in Maryland law, though the days are assigned to Pimlico, Mr. DeFrancis is not obliged to run them.

Comes now the Orioles' parvenu owner, Peter Angelos. Mr. Angelos has a neat-o idea. He'd like the Maryland Stadium Authority to use a chunk of its $160.5 million wad to add 10,000 seats to the ballpark at Camden Yards. Those additional seats would not be sold to the general public. They'd be set aside as freebies for poor inner-city kids.

Abe Pollin is no Johnny-come-lately to the old hocus-pocus of getting something for nothing. The owner of the Capitals hockey team and Bullets basketball team once had the law bent mightily in his favor so he could get a 20-year, tax-free deal when he built the Cap Center (now the USAir Arena) in Landover.

Time's up, so's the jig.

Now Mr. Pollin has another offer that the city might be hard-pressed to refuse. If the Maryland Stadium Authority were to use its cash to build an arena on the site that's reserved for a football stadium, Mr. Pollin would consider moving the Caps and the Bullets to Baltimore. His company already manages the Baltimore Arena.

As if that weren't enough, a Potomac entrepreneur, James Speros, wants to bring Canadian league football to Baltimore's jTC Memorial Stadium. And if the NFL doesn't come calling by Feb. 14, Mayor Kurt Schmoke is ready to cut the deal.

So where's the boodle everybody's ogling? There is currently $21 million in lottery funds reserved for a football stadium at Camden Yards. And in the next fiscal year there'll be an additional $19 million in the kitty, for a total of $40 million.

Over the next two years the stadium authority will haul in another $16 million from lottery proceeds. And through the refinancing of baseball stadium bonds the authority will pick up another $15.5 million in fiscal 1996. Add to these figures the authority's $89 million in bonding capacity and it totals a tidy $160.5.

There is, though, an inherent danger in using the stadium authority's bonding capacity to fund other state projects, especially general fund programs. Other states have floated bonds to fund social programs and wound up in debt.

Remember, too, that this is an election year and lawmakers as well as special interest lobbying groups are eager to bring home the pork chop. For in the corners and crannies of Annapolis, pork is a form of autobiography: It says what a legislator does and how well he does it.

The way legislators view the sudden shimmer of riches, there is $40 million available for what are described as "worthy legislative initiatives."

Trouble is, the $40 million the legislature views as its private cash cow is one-time windfall money, i.e., money that can't be put into mandated programs that grow annually. And keep in mind, too, that a project's pork when it's in somebody else's district. When pork is at home it's a "worthy legislative initiative."

The truth is, if the football money is diverted to other projects and programs, the state nonetheless is still facing successive years of revenue shortfalls because of the explosive growth in school and prison populations and the rocketing cost of Medicaid and Medicare. This, according to the Schaefer administration's own work sheets.

The problem with this election year is that Gov. William Donald Schaefer and members of the General Assembly have itchy fingers. They haven't had this much play money to toss around for four years. And in one sense, it's an easy grab because it's what Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein likes to call OPM -- other people's money.

This is one session where it's, literally, important to keep your eye on the bouncing ball.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes a regular column on Maryland politics.

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