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Wednesday, January 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Pulling a hamstring to prop up sports teams

A permanent sport-stadium tax in King County, a trial balloon floated recently, is not welcomed by the average citizen. That is my sense of it. The citizens of King County voted no on Safeco Field, narrowly, the one time they were asked about it. The citizens of Washington voted yes on Qwest Field, narrowly, after football interests, principally Paul Allen, spent $6.3 million to enchant them.

Two stadium elections: The first was ignored and the second bought. But at least we had them. At least we were asked before being made to pay.

And we do pay. In King County, we pay an extra 0.5 percent on every restaurant meal, bumping the rate to 9.3; an extra 2 percent every time we rent a car or truck; and 2 percent on hotel and motel bills. We pay taxes on baseball until 2018 and on football until 2020.

Basketball was supposed to be different. The Coliseum was to be rebuilt with revenues. The construction debt of $74.5 million has been whittled down to $58 million, but now the Sonics say they cannot get to zero. Why? The luxury suites at Safeco and Qwest, which were funded by the public, have undercut the market for the luxury suites at the Key Arena. If commercial baseball and commercial football have a source of free public capital, commercial basketball must have it, too.

That seems to imply several things. First, citizens will no longer vote on stadium taxes. If a tax is permanent there is no reason to vote on it, other than to raise it. Second, it implies that the nearly free provision of sports stadiums to commercial teams has become an everyday function of government.

A decade ago, the need for a baseball stadium was declared by the Legislature to be a public emergency. That was crazy, but the Washington Supreme Court went along with it as a one-time thing. A permanent tax makes it routine.

The expansion of sports threatens other interests. Of the hotel-motel tax, the arts groups also get a share, and they have now mobilized with the assistance of Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata.

All this is a small fight in a melee of claims and maneuvers. In Seattle, we have high-tech public toilets that The Stranger so deliciously called "safe injection sites." These and other municipal necessities required an increase in the utility tax. The mayor, who wanted to hold the line on that tax, nevertheless supports a waterfront tunnel. It is a wonderful project, and he says he will try to find the extra $700 million for it. Some will come from the Port of Seattle, which will have to rely on its property tax.

At the state level, where revenues are expected to be up 7 percent, our outgoing governor proposed a spending increase of 12 percent. Much of it is for raises for state employees, and also to fund Initiative 728, an education measure that was sold to voters in 2000 on the promise that no tax increase was necessary. The governor proposed to increase taxes by $500 million.

In these different stories, there is a thread. The public sector and the private entities that live off it have made commitments they want to honor, and have other things they want to do. These require a bigger share of private incomes: a higher utility tax, a candy and pop tax, an extension of motel and restaurant taxes.

"Every time they need money, they either extend a tax or enact a new one," says Faye Garneau, executive director of the Aurora Merchants Association. North-end motel owners, she says, have not fully recovered from 9/11. They are hoping to see the end of their obligation to pay for Qwest Field.

There is a wider point about "economic development," which has been a rationale for stadiums and much else. A tax that puts money in the pocket of A takes it out of B. In our itch to lift up A, let us not hamstring B.

Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association, says the private sector is not strong enough right now to carry a big new load. Referring to the statewide rejection of I-884, the penny increase in the sales tax, he said, "That, to me, was the biggest vote. People were saying, 'Make do with what you have.' "

It is so hard for certain people to hear that.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com. Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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