Take this date and put it in your pocket: April 14, 2010.
A new study has raised the extreme possibility that the Atlanta Falcons, within a few years, will be scrimmaging in a new, $1 billion stadium with a retractable roof.
Roughly a third of the cost — $300 million is the figure in current usage — is likely to be borne by those who check into Fulton County hotels and motels, via a 7 percent surcharge on their room bills. The 20-year-old Georgia Dome, also built with a flow of taxpayer cash, would be demolished.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank and a state agency, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, are negotiating $650 million or so in details.
The news threatens to spark a debate over the public financing of athletic venues. Let the private sector finance itself, cry the tea partyers. Democrats wonder out loud whether millions for a billionaire owner might be better spent on education.
Don’t let them fool you. Both sides are two years too late. That date in your pocket? Pull it out. That’s when the debate over a new, publicly funded stadium for the Falcons ended. This is a perpendicular fact.
Democrats fully supported the spending. Most Republicans, if they did not agree with it, turned a convenient blind eye.
On April 14, 2010, the GOP-controlled House – with near unanimous support from the minority party — gave final, overwhelming approval to HB 903, a bill to permit the extension of the existing hotel/motel tax in Fulton County until the year 2050.
A Republican-controlled Senate had bestowed its similar, oversized blessing one day earlier. A Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, signed HB 903 into law.
While the measure was not widely advertised, no secrecy was involved. Weeks before the bill was sent to the governor, Frank Poe, the new head of the Georgia World Congress Center, publicly praised the Legislature for its actions to keep the Falcons in downtown Atlanta. “It exhibits that there is a political will,” Poe said.
And yet, the next Falcons stadium will be so pristine that there won’t be a single GOP fingerprint on it. Not one that matters, anyway.
HB 903 was carried by state Rep. Mark Burkhalter, a Republican from north Fulton County, who – only a few months earlier – had been a finalist for GWCC job. He would not run for re-election.
The Dome operation is “a moneymaker for this state,” Burkhalter said. “We ought to be helping our economic engines like that.”
In the House, HB 903 passed on a vote of 127 to 18. Twenty-eight lawmakers managed not to vote – though only 11 had formal excuses. Most of the absentees were Republican.
Among those who didn’t cast a vote: House Speaker David Ralston – although this is not unusual. The speaker casts a vote only in event of a tie. Still, this allowed a spokesman for Ralston, last week, to declare – without contradiction — that the speaker “remains cool to the idea of asking more from Georgia’s taxpayers to build a new stadium.”
In the Senate, eight of 54 lawmakers were excused or otherwise declined to vote on HB 903. Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock, an active tea partyer, was among the excused.
Once the bill passed, the matter of a new Falcons stadium was placed squarely – and solely – in the hands of 15 members of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority. All are gubernatorial appointees.
We have the example of the board that governs the Georgia Lottery Corporation, which the governor also controls through appointments. Legally, that body has the power to approve lottery-fueled casinos in Georgia. But its members say they will defer to Gov. Nathan Deal on any expansion of gambling in the state.
Don’t expect this to happen with the Falcons stadium. First, the GWCC is unlikely to pass such a hot potato to the governor — that would be an act of hostility. Secondly, Deal could easily sidestep the controversy by saying this was a matter of policy settled by his predecessor. He has not done so – and a spokesman for Deal declined to make any comment on the stadium last week.
In any case, look for those negotiations between Blank and the GWCC to finish well before January, when the General Assembly next convenes.
Last March, at the tail end of the legislative session, state Rep. Mike Dudgeon of Suwanee – note the hometown – and several other lawmakers introduced HR 1871, a non-binding measure intended as a statement of disapproval of public financing for a new Falcons stadium.
Most of those who signed onto the measure were, like Dudgeon, freshmen who had no part in the 2010 debate. “I just have a real hard time saying that’s the best use of taxpayer money,” he said.
Will he try to make any trouble next year? “We’ll have to see how the deal works out. It’s not the exact plan to make trouble,” Dudgeon said. “It’s to get on the record that we don’t like it – recognizing that the train is out of the station, so to speak.”
We leave you with one last bit of irony. Legislative approval of funding for a new Falcons stadium appeared in the April 15, 2010 edition of the newspaper. But as I recall, it failed to make the list of spending outrages condemned at that day’s rally of 3,000 tea partyers gathered around the Capitol.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider