An honest compromise on paying for stadiums

Comment

February 25, 1996|By Elise Armacost

I LIKE this stadium deal they cut in Annapolis last week, and not because I'm counting the days until football returns to Baltimore so my Sundays have meaning. I like it because it's sensible. More than that, I like it because it's honest.

With this deal, what we see is exactly what we'll get: a $200 million stadium paid for entirely by lottery games set up specifically to support sports projects, plus what amounts to a $24 million donation from Browns owner Art Modell. We'll get to use that to build schools. And, oh yes, there's also the matter of $73 million for roads, etc. for that other stadium over in Prince George's County.

It still is not clear where that money's coming from, but I'm willing to bet Prince George's ends up footing a hunk of that bill, which will make that part of the package easier to swallow.

It's a straightforward proposal, especially the Baltimore part, and a darned good compromise. Mr. Modell, despite having to shell out some money, still gets a pretty sweet deal. And so do taxpayers. Not only isn't this stadium costing them a cent, they're making $24 million.

As Del. Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis, chairman of the House Economic Matters committee, put it, "I don't know if everybody who's opposed will be enthralled, but this makes a bad deal -- if you consider [the stadium] a bad deal -- more palatable."

It is Mr. Modell's $24 million, of course, that makes the difference. It's not all that much in the scheme of things -- enough for two middle schools, maybe. Still, two schools that he pays for are two schools taxpayers don't. Plus, there's the

principle.

From a practical standpoint, the proposal to build a Baltimore stadium should not have outraged people. Even at $200 million, stadium costs can be completely covered by the four sports lottery games the General Assembly set up in 1987. In other words, no taxpayer has to pay a dime toward this facility if he or she doesn't want to; nobody forces us to play the lottery. A lot of people still don't understand that. That's been a big obstacle for the Glendening administration and other stadium supporters.

But perhaps a bigger stumbling block is that even people who do realize taxes aren't paying for this stadium don't care. They just plain don't like the idea of handing public money to a millionaire sports owner, no matter where that money comes from.

The mood was different 10 years ago when the General Assembly created the sports lotteries. Now, people see state-funded stadiums as welfare for the rich, and they resent it. And while it's true that big economic developments projects always generate opposition -- the Inner Harbor and Oriole Park certainly did -- sentiment against this stadium has been unusually bitter.

This put many lawmakers who otherwise would have supported a Baltimore stadium in a bind.

Take Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park. He knows that, through sheer proximity, his district will benefit in terms of jobs and construction contracts. He remembers, too, that North County was positively manic about football when the Colts were here. But he's heard enough anger about this deal to make him pause. He wouldn't vote "yes," he said, until lawmakers found a way to make things -- how did Mr. Busch put it? -- "more palatable."

One method lawmakers, including some in Anne Arundel County's delegation, seriously considered was nothing less than scam. Added to lottery funds collected since 1987, the four sports lotteries can cover the cost of a Baltimore stadium as long as they generate the maximum $32 million allowed by law for each of the next three years. But lawmakers proposed limiting the amount that could be used for sports projects to $24 million annually and spending the remaining $8 million on schools and other projects. They apparently weren't concerned about the dishonesty of marketing a lottery for sports projects and then using a quarter of the money for something else. Using $8 million a year for schools would have made them look noble.

It also would have meant the lotteries alone could not have paid for the stadium, forcing the governor either to use tax money to make up the missing $24 million or ask Mr. Modell to contribute. Basically, the lawmakers manufactured a crisis so they could look good responding to it.

Political shell game

This shell game was discarded last week after Mr. Modell agreed to pay -- which, of course, was what the lawmakers wanted all along. I wish I could say our representatives eventually had qualms about playing both ends against the middle, but that's not what happened. They realized, Mr. Busch said, that the Maryland Stadium Authority can't afford to loan Mr. Modell $24 million just so he can give it to us if the lotteries are capped at $24 million a year.

Hence, the latest brainstorm: Let the lotteries pay for the stadium, as they were supposed to do. And have Art Modell put up $24 million and then earmark it for schools -- a gesture of commitment, if you will, to the state that is now his home.

' Sounds palatable to me.

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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