Obama administration proposal to limit tax-free government bonds for stadiums

Federal policy might change how sports teams and municipalities negotiate stadium deals:

That’s what the Obama administration proposed in its budget last month: to end the issuance of tax-free government bonds for professional sports facilities, a practice that has, according to research by Bloomberg, siphoned $17 billion of public money into arenas for NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL franchises over the last 30 years and cost Americans $4 billion in forgone federal taxes on top of that. It’s too late for residents of Cobb County, but Congress might yet save the rest of us some dough…

So how did we wind up in this situation? Local authorities have long used tax-exempt bonds to raise money for certain private uses—whether factories, train stations, or home mortgage loans—in addition to schools, sewers, and other infrastructure projects. In most cases, the ensuing economic growth was at least intended to pay back the municipal investment. Sports stadiums were no different: Governments could raise money in exchange for a share of future revenue…

Much of the rest of the article summarizes the research that shows cities and taxpayers tend not to come out ahead in these deals. So, this new policy might solve the problem?

Still, it wouldn’t stop cities from paying for stadiums. The last time Congress made public financing more onerous, in 1986, the result was a disaster: Cities jumped to meet the new, harsher terms, opening a three-decade stadium construction spree.

In other words, the policy might close the loophole for this particular financial instrument but there are other ways to make such deals. As I’ve said repeatedly, few politicians are willing to let the big team get away. Of course, the historical record suggests that everything does not necessarily fall apart when teams move. Many of the cities since the 1950s that saw teams move away later saw new teams take their place. Sports teams only have limited numbers of places they can move to make the kind of money they want; this is the reason Los Angeles looms so large right now in the NFL’s urban landscape because the next options are not very good.

The bigger question may be whether cities and suburbs can stop themselves from making bad deals, even with federal policies that take away some of their options.

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