When the King County Council voted Monday to subsidize Safeco Field, again, it did more than just give $135 million that will benefit a private pro-sports franchise. It suggested the taxpaying public will be in this racket forever.
In all the headlines we’ve run since the “stadium wars” first broke out a few decades ago, the most prophetic came not long after both of our taxpayer-financed baseball and football complexes were finished.
“Stadium taxes might never expire,” informed a 2005 front-page story.
It was about an effort by the various pro teams, which at that time included the basketball Sonics, to extend their public subsidies forever in what would amount to a permanent sports-stadium fund.
That idea was, as you might imagine, about as popular as the Seahawks offensive line. It got mocked, and rejected, because it would have made our pro-sports teams, owned by billionaires, into a perpetual wing of the government.
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Ha ha, well, joke’s on us. Because the Metropolitan King County Council’s vote Monday to subsidize Safeco Field yet again has brought us back ’round to the same place. It effectively assures that public funding of for-profit sports here will go on forever.
Monday the council agreed to put another $135 million over 25 years into the Mariners stadium — bringing the total taxpayer tab for that one park to $507 million (the initial public share to build it was $372 million).
This decision all but clinches we’ll have to do it again for the football stadium, too.
One of the “yes” votes Monday, Claudia Balducci of Bellevue, described it as a sort of gravitational sports-obligation vortex. Once you’re sucked in, there’s no way out. Short of your team moving to Oklahoma.
When she was mayor of Bellevue, Balducci said, she balked at all public-private sports deals because “once you get into owning a stadium or an arena, you have an obligation … So this trajectory was set long ago.”
And yet, the way this permanent obligation has been foisted on the public is a backdoor scam.
Example: After rejecting the 2005 idea of setting up a permanent sports stadium fund, the state Legislature again considered, in 2011, what could be done with a portion of the revenue stream once the second stadium, CenturyLink, is paid off (Safeco is already paid off).
In that 2011 legislation, the state decided that starting in 2021, it would redirect the ongoing lodging-tax money to three purposes: housing, arts groups and tourism promotion. Nobody mentioned again subsidizing the pro-sports teams.
We know this because current Metropolitan King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles was a state senator in 2011 — and, as it happens, a co-sponsor of that very legislation. She told the rest of the council Monday that this money wasn’t intended to flow to pro-sports teams. Had that been discussed in 2011, it’s extremely unlikely the bill would have passed.
The law itself specifies: “Moneys allocated to tourism promotion in a county with a population of one million or more must be allocated to local public organizations and nonprofit organizations formed for the express purpose of tourism promotion. Such organizations must use moneys from the taxes to promote events in all parts of the county.”
Said Kohl-Welles on Monday: “The Legislature did not include any language in this regarding the Seattle Mariners. This is not carrying out the intent of the Legislature … This is an anachronism. The stadium wars have played out.”
But never doubt the power of sports to sedate the synapses of elected officials. Somehow five of the members agreed, with the support of King County Executive Dow Constantine, to shift the money away from the actual nonprofit tourism groups described above and instead funnel it to benefit one billionaire-owned, for-profit private business.
“That is not a compromise,” objected councilmember Rod Dembowski. “It is a heist. It is a fleecing.”
Yes, and in a backdoor way that likely locks us into subsidizing pro sports for at least the next couple of generations.
Well, I suspect you readers have grown weary of me beating this same drum, about this one variety of fleecing. I don’t blame you; I’m tired of it, too. Because it so obviously is an anachronism.
But it turns out it was hardly played out. In fact, thanks to the King County Council, we no longer need to wonder about the question of when will the stadium taxes expire. The answer all along was “never.”
Correction: A previous sub-headline on this column incorrectly stated that the King County Council voted to give $135 million to the Mariners for the upkeep of Safeco Field. The money actually goes to the Public Facilities District for the upkeep of the stadium.