Great Moments in Public Financing of Ballparks

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The financing and building of the Braves new ballpark continues to be wonderful.

It’s not necessarily unusual. It’s not like what they’re doing is impermissible. Indeed, with the little bit about the ethics of one of the county board members aside, everything that Cobb County, Georgia and the Braves are doing has been done in some form elsewhere before and is going to be approved and the park will be finished on schedule, one presumes.

But it is wonderful because the stuff that everyone involved is pulling on this deal is being reported with some degree of criticism by the big local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Often you see local paper play lapdog to those behind the stadium deals because the paper is published by people favor of such deals and may, in some cases, even be a part of such deals.

Not so in Atlanta where, from what I can tell, the folks down in the city proper are not fans of the Braves moving and/or how it all went down and thus are not attempting to provide the usual polish one usually sees on the turds that are publicly-financed ballparks. They’re actually stating what is going on in pretty plain terms.

For example, often time there will be weird machinations regarding the issuing of bonds to pay for ballparks — or in any public financing scheme — with the creation of quasi-public “stadium authorities” which technically administer such things. There are good reasons for that. There are also some less-good reasons for that which involve the shielding of the process from public scrutiny and ability of the authority to skirt rules that governments would have to abide by if they were running the show themselves. You tend not to hear too much about all of this, as the local paper usually just treats the authority as a Thing Created By God that is not questioned.

In the case of the Braves new ballpark, however, the AJC ran a story yesterday that actually articulated the argument of opponents of the ballpark in a way that makes one realize how silly all of this is:

Lawyers for Cobb County government say their plan to borrow nearly $400 million for the new Atlanta Braves stadium without a public vote is legal, because the bond issuance isn’t considered “debt within the meaning of the Georgia Constitution . . .  The key to the county’s argument is that they are not issuing the bonds — that will be done by the quasi-governmental Cobb-Marietta Coliseum and Exhibit Hall Authority. They county is pledging $18 million annually to cover the debt, and will use a combination of property taxes (new and existing), new hotel room fees, a new rental car tax and the existing hotel-motel tax to raise those funds.

In other words “yes, citizens, your tax money is being used to pay off $400 million worth of money borrowed for a ballpark at the instigation of your elected officials, but since we formed this commission to handle the paperwork, you don’t have a right to, you know, vote on it.”

Which, again, is common. Form over substance is the name of the game when it comes to the public financing of, well, almost anything. I assume will ultimately be ratified by a judge and all of this will go on the way the county and the Braves want it to.

But take a moment to think about whether the logic behind your usual public financing — one which goes to a public good which serves the interests of all citizens — is the same as the logic behind that which serves the interest of a professional sports team and its very small number of actual, tangible stakeholders. And take a moment to consider whether something being permissible and something being right is the same thing.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.