Jay Barnes doesn’t mince words when he talks about Gov. Jay Nixon’s efforts to build a new stadium for the St. Louis Rams.
“The governor,” said the Republican state representative from Jefferson City, “has treated Missouri taxpayers like he’s the dictator of a third-world country.”
Nixon says the state is committed to helping fund a new stadium in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the St. Louis Rams from relocating to California.
State legislators say they’re committed to sabotaging Nixon’s plan unless he puts it up for a vote of either the legislature or the general public.
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It’s a billion-dollar game of chicken, with the state’s budget and the fate of an NFL franchise potentially hanging in the balance as lawmakers return to the Missouri Capitol for the 2016 legislative session Jan. 6.
“It seems to me that the governor knows this couldn’t win legislative support,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican and chairman of the Senate appropriations committee. “So he’s just going to ram it through and call our bluff.”
A task force appointed by Nixon has proposed a 64,000-seat, open-air stadium, located just north of downtown St. Louis on the Mississippi River. HOK, with offices in both St. Louis and Kansas City, is the task force’s design and architecture firm for the stadium.
The new stadium would cost more than $1 billion, with about half coming from taxpayers.
Most of the public money would come from extending payments the state is already making on the Rams’ current home, the Edward Jones Dome. Nixon’s administration argues that this is permitted under a 20-year-old state law and therefore doesn’t require approval of the legislature or the public.
Missouri lawmakers vehemently disagree.
“A brand new stadium project — wherever that is — deserves voter input,” said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “Missouri families don’t get to refinance their current house to build a brand new house down the road. Why should it be any different for this project?”
The NFL has set a Dec. 30 deadline for St. Louis to submit a detailed stadium proposal. The league will begin formally accepting relocation applications from teams by Jan. 4, and a decision on those relocation applications is anticipated at a special owners meeting scheduled for Jan. 12 and 13, said Scott Holste, Nixon’s press secretary.
“Missouri’s two NFL teams are valuable assets to the state — both economically and fiscally,” Holste said in an email to The Star. “That’s why the governor supports this prudent and fiscally responsible plan to keep the Rams in St. Louis, transform the north riverfront and create thousands of jobs without raising taxes.”
The state awarded $50 million in tax credits several years ago for the most recent renovations of Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums. Those improvements cost $575 million, with almost 80 percent coming from local taxpayers. The state later granted the Chiefs an additional $25 million in credits for stadium improvements and a training facility in St. Joseph.
The state’s commitment to a St. Louis stadium would far outpace the amount of tax credits granted for Kauffman and Arrowhead.
Missouri would finance $150 million, which when fully paid off with interest would total more than $400 million. An additional $90 million would be made available in state tax credits.
The team’s owner would pay $250 million, the NFL would give the team a $200 million loan, and fan seat licenses would generate $160 million. The City of St. Louis would be on the hook to finance $150 million, with the city’s Board of Aldermen expected to vote on the idea next week.
Yet even in St. Louis, the idea is proving divisive. Critics say it represents misplaced priorities in a city grappling with bigger problems than the future of a football team.
“Where is the sense of urgency about affordable housing, public transportation, fair and impartial policing, infant mortality and a long list of other issues that are truly at the core of St. Louis’ health as an urban area?” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri and a former Democratic state representative from St. Louis.
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French threatened to block the stadium funding measure unless the city first developed a comprehensive plan to fight crime. This week, however, in a committee vote he supportedthe proposal after an amendment was added setting minority participation goals for stadium construction jobs.
Still others say Rams owner Stan Kroenke has had one foot out the door for years, culminating when he announced plans to build his own 80,000-seat stadium in the Los Angeles area.
They argue that if Kroenke, a billionaire real estate developer, is determined to leave, then taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to woo him to stay. Especially when the Rams haven’t had a winning season since 2003 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004.
Dave Peacock, the former president of Anheuser-Busch appointed by Nixon to lead the St. Louis NFL Task Force, recently wrote that in addition to keeping the Rams in St. Louis, the stadium proposal could bring meaningful urban renewal to “one of the worst, neglected sites in St. Louis.”
The Associated Industries of Missouri, a business advocacy organization, threw its support behind the stadium because of a report it commissioned that found a net financial benefit to the state if it helps build the stadium and “a loss to taxpayers if we do nothing, because we will lose tax revenue from NFL players, staff and visiting teams,” said Ray McCarty, the group’s president and CEO.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, doesn’t buy it. Academic research has long concluded building stadiums is a “bad deal for taxpayers,” he said, “but a bunch of special interests want the legislature to ignore that.”
“Building a stadium is a winning thing for one billionaire and some land developers,” Schaaf said, “but it’s not a winning thing for the taxpayers.”
Schaaf is among 21 senators and 120 representatives — making up three-fourths of the General Assembly — who have publicly vowed to oppose the stadium proposal unless it is approved by the legislature or by the public.
Holste counters that the legislature has already had plenty of opportunity to weigh in.
“It is important to note that the task force presented its proposal nearly a year ago — on Jan. 9 — giving members of the General Assembly the entirety of the (2015) legislative session to review and discuss this issue — including holding hearings and debating legislation,” Holste said.
Silvey said he attempted to weigh in last year by including language in the state budget banning the use of state money to pay off bonds for a new sports stadium. The ban was removed from the budget at the urging of former House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican and real estate development lawyer.
“The former speaker wanted it out,” Silvey said. “I brought the budget process to a standstill for several hours late one night, but ultimately the former speaker won, and that language came out.”
Diehl was forced to resign in May after The Star revealed details of his relationship with a 19-year-old House intern. Since then, House leadership has come out forcefully against the stadium funding proposal.
In a letter to Nixon last month, new House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, said the legislature “will oppose any proposal that undermines the authority of the Missouri General Assembly and the will of the people.”
Additionally, a lawsuit has been filed by a handful of lawmakers seeking to stop the state from signing any contracts or agreements with the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority involving the new stadium.
Barnes, one of the lawmakers involved in the lawsuit, said the stadium would be a tough sell in the legislature. But the governor and other supporters would have the opportunity to make their case, “just as the governor has done with other big projects before.”
Barnes pointed specifically at Nixon’s success in 2014 getting legislative approval for an incentive package for Boeing Co.
“The problem the governor has created with his actions so far is that he’s poisoned the well and made it that much more difficult should he come to us now,” Barnes said. “He would receive a fair hearing, but whether it could get across the finish line or not, I really don’t know.”
What happens next is unclear, as no one knows whether NFL owners will ultimately grant the Rams’ owner permission to move the team to California. Owners of teams in Oakland and San Diego are also interested in relocating to the Los Angeles area.
Some think that even if a new stadium is built it won’t ensure the Rams will stay put.
Either way, Schaaf says lawmakers have made their feelings well known.
The General Assembly “has told the Nixon administration that we’re not paying for it,” Schaaf said. “If he moves forward without a vote of the people or vote of the legislature, we’re not paying.”