A stadium to make us feel good about ourselves

February 13, 1996|By J. Peter Sabonis

LET'S CUT the nonsense. The only argument for the new football stadium is image: The new stadium and a pro football franchise will change the way people elsewhere view us. That's it -- plain and simple.

Forget the economic benefits -- you can find a host of development activities that could yield as much or more economic benefits to Marylanders.

And forget the issue of a binding contract with Art Modell -- we pay lawyers daily to find contractual loopholes. The fact that the stadium-authority lawyers were dull enough to negotiate a deal that could be undermined by the legislature is hardly an argument for its ratification.

Forget the reference to Oriole Park and how it turned out. There is no such thing as a ''classic'' football stadium. There's little you can do with a gigantic concrete bath tub that will stir the soul of football fans (except provide an adequate number of urinals). And forget the sophistry about whether taxpayer dollars are being used or not -- the issue is about ''public'' funds. Special lotteries could be used to fund a number of economically useful projects with social utility.

This is about us. And our image. And our insecurities. Let's face it. Baltimoreans are an insecure lot who suffer from an image problem. Robert Irsay of the Colts didn't help the matter, and Edward Bennett Williams of the Orioles understood it enough to exploit it for gain.

But image is a subjective concept. Everyone, from The Sun editorial board to the Montgomery County School Board has an opinion on how pro football affects the image of a city or state. These opinions can't be tested, proved or disproved. In the end, it comes down to what you think.

That the stadium war will be resolved on this subjective battleground should be of concern, but the sad reality is that many public-policy decisions lack an empirical foundation. The real problem with the stadium, however, is the public perception, based on history, that the public's perception doesn't matter.

In 1987, 45,000 Marylanders petitioned the state to place the original legislation authorizing the building of the baseball and football stadiums on the public ballot for referendum. Despite the confidence of our government leaders that the people would support the legislation, state taxpayer money was spent on a lawsuit to keep the question away from the voters. Joining the state in the lawsuit against the ballot initiative was the Greater Baltimore Committee, an elite group of business leaders.

A curious decision

The lawsuit resulted in one of the more curious decisions by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Our state constitution allows a referendum on any law passed by the General Assembly, except one that makes an appropriation for the maintenance of state government. Despite noting that the Stadium law appropriated no funds, the court nevertheless found the legislation to be an appropriation of state money for the maintenance of state government, and thus beyond the scope of a referendum.

If the 1986 legislation were, in fact, an actual appropriation, there would be no stadium fight today. The expenditure already would have been authorized. But this is not the case. The money must be authorized by this year's state budget; that's where the fight is now taking place. In short, the appropriation the court found in 1987 was a legal fiction, designed to avoid the risk of referendum.

Those who are now surprised at the negative public reaction to the stadium should remember all this. In 1987, we the people sought to take this issue out of the hands of the politicians and decide it ourselves. We were denied that opportunity. We were told, through legal sophistry, that we were not to be trusted with this one. We might decide incorrectly.

Is it any wonder why we have an image problem? And why a new stadium won't improve it?

J. Peter Sabonis is executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

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