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.