Bad Bargain: Sox, Bears deals leave taxpayers with huge tab

Taxpayers will shell out $36 million for Soldier Field in 2016, in addition to footing the bill for U.S. Cellular Field. And the city of Chicago is still pushing a plan for DePaul University that would cost an initial $55 million for a new basketball stadium.

By Joe Kaiser 
Illinois Policy

Former Gov. Jim Thompson’s record-long tenure in Springfield pushed a lot of unfunded liabilities onto generations to come. But Illinoisans are probably less aware of one decision for which they’re still paying mightily – U.S. Cellular Field.

As the Chicago Tribune reported May 23, taxpayers still are footing the bill for Thompson’s decades-old deal to keep the Chicago White Sox in the state.

The ongoing tax burden is a predictable outcome of bad public policy: taxpayers paying for billionaires’ stadiums.

The grand bargain for the White Sox started when owner Jerry Reinsdorf threatened to move the ball club to Florida in the 1980s unless he got funding for a new stadium. Then-Gov. Thompson and then-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington didn’t think he was bluffing; they pulled out all the stops to make sure the White Sox remained in Bridgeport.

State politicians went so far as to turn off the clocks in the General Assembly to avoid a midnight deadline to provide funding for the stadium.

And while Illinois taxpayers were being sentenced to decades of subsidizing a baseball team, Florida taxpayers were about to do the same – for the same team.

The St. Petersburg City Council voted in 1986 for $85 million in taxpayer funds to build the Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field), the future home of the Tampa Bay White Sox. That, obviously, never happened. But St. Petersburg taxpayers were left with the bill for a domed stadium that did not house a team until 1998, when Major League Baseball brought the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the area.

Back in Illinois, the agreement reached to keep the White Sox also created the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, or ISFA, in 1987. The ISFA owns and operates U.S. Cellular Field, and oversaw the renovations of Soldier Field in the early 2000s. Taxpayers are still paying for Soldier Field, too, including $36 million this year.

And as the Chicago Tribune reported in 2002 when discussing the Soldier Field renovations, the whole process is political.

The Soldier Field deal provided for a “huge public-works project with plenty of hefty contracts for friends and political allies of City Hall and Springfield.” An alderman’s brother’s firm provided security at the Soldier Field construction site, and a local partner for the construction team was a major contributor to then-Gov. and now convicted felon George Ryan.

To recap: The ISFA deal burdened taxpayers for generations to provide benefits to the politically connected and sustain businesses for billionaires.

The entire fiasco with the White Sox, which affected both Illinois and Florida taxpayers, should show why taxpayer money for stadiums is terrible public policy.

But it’s still commonplace throughout the country.

The City of Arlington, Texas, unanimously approved a plan May 24, asking taxpayers for nearly $500 million for a new Texas Rangers’ stadium with a retractable roof. The stadium would be located not far from the Dallas Cowboys behemoth, publicly funded to the tune of $325 million.

Last year, the Wisconsin State Assembly and Gov. Scott Walker approved $250 million of public funding for a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks, which had been rumored to move to Seattle. Never mind that southeastern Wisconsin taxpayers are still paying for Miller Park, the 15-year-old home of the Milwaukee Brewers, until possibly 2020.

Meanwhile, a former Milwaukee-based team, the Atlanta Braves, is set to move into a new stadium northwest of Atlanta next season with nearly $400 million in taxpayer funding. This is in addition to the millions of dollars the Braves organization asks from taxpayers to subsidize all of its farm teams.

The list goes on and on, with examples throughout the country, of taxpayers being left with the tab for stadiums for which private interests should have paid.

The practice is no different than state governments bribing companies with gifts and tax breaks, a policy Americans generally reject.

States and city governments – especially Illinois and Chicago, given their financial situations – should look to change course.

But, as often is the case, the Land of Lincoln and the Windy City continue the same mistakes for decades.

The Chicago City Council is now asking taxpayers to put forward $55 million for a new basketball arena for DePaul University, a private university with an endowment approaching half a billion dollars. The plan, which includes construction of an accompanying hotel, assumes the men’s basketball team will practically sell out every home game at the 10,000-seat arena. But the Blue Demons drew an average crowd of only 2,200 people at All-State Arena in suburban Rosemont during the 2014-2015 season. In the 2015-2016 season, the team finished with an abysmal record of 9-22, landing in second-to-last place in the Big East Conference.

Again, officials are repeating the bad public policy pattern. Considering the state is still paying off its debts for U.S. Cellular and Soldier Fields, it is obvious the DePaul plan would be another bad deal for taxpayers. And considering the financial state of both the city of Chicago and state of Illinois – with plummeting credit ratings, mounting unpaid obligations and a desperate need for reforms – continuing these subsidies should not be an option.

But the policy is widespread, and often adopted without a second thought.

Even if a subsidized team wins, taxpayers lose. And over the last several decades in Illinois, taxpayers have lost enough.

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