The battle over whether the St. Louis Rams get a new stadium, move back to Los Angeles, or must endure yet another season in their oh my God almost 20-year-old building just got even freakier. The melodrama has already featured Gov. Jay Nixon proposing to spend $450 million in public money without explaining where it all would come from, Rams owner Stan Kroenke refusing to take city officials' calls, a proposed stadium site on top of honest-to-god Indian burial mounds, and, last week, a local law professor and his students threatened to sue the city if it tried to spend tax money on a new Rams stadium without holding a public vote. On Friday, the state-run stadium authority countered by suing the city preemptively to prevent a referendum, on the grounds that requiring a public vote on spending public money is unconstitutional or something.
This whole mess was set off by a pair of votes held in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County back in 2002 and 2004, when it was Major League Baseball's Cardinals seeking public assistance for their new ballpark. Local activists put referendums on the ballot to bar sports stadium subsidies of any kind—straight-up cash, tax breaks, free land, you name it—without a popular vote. Both measures passed handily, and while courts ruled they were too late to cut off already-approved funds for the Cardinals, it was widely assumed that the laws would be in place for any future deals.
Foolish humans, when will they ever learn? Trying to stop the multi-billion-dollar stadium and arena subsidy juggernaut by forcing public votes—that quaint Earth custom known as "democracy"—has a long history, and a just as long track record of falling short in actually achieving much.
One of the first cities to try shutting off the stadium spigot was Minneapolis, where way back in 1997, residents responded to Twins owner Carl Pohlad's annual demands for construction cash by approving a referendum requiring public approval for any city stadium expenses over $10 million. This worked great for several years, until Pohlad instead went to the county commission for cash, winning a narrow 4-3 vote to raise sales taxes and give the proceeds to the Twins (incidentally, all of the "yes" votes came from men; all of the "no" votes came from women). A tax hike normally would have triggered a public vote as well, but Twins lobbyists talked the state legislature into waiving that provision, and so Target Field and its $387 million public debt was born.
Or consider Seattle, where residents in 2006 passed one of the nation's toughest laws limiting sports spending: Initiative 91 actually required that if the city of Seattle wanted to spend any money on a new sports facility, it would have to show it would turn a profit equal to the return it could get on U.S. Treasury bonds. Everyone involved patted themselves on the back, right up until the moment when wannabe Seattle National Basketball Association owner Chris Hansen successfully argued that because his arena plan wouldn't require any city cash up front—residents would instead kick back taxes down the road—he could meet the letter of the law even if Seattle didn't see a dime in profit. (As of this writing, Hansen hasn't gotten his arena cash yet, but only because Sacramento ultimately offered a way more lucrative deal to induce the NBA to reject Hansen's purchase bid and make the Kings stay put).
Why does people power fail when confronted with sports stadium financing? The problem is twofold. First off, no matter how good the lawyers who write up your subsidy-blocking referendum are, billionaire sports team owners can always afford better ones. (The gold standard here is probably the 90s-era legal team that somehow convinced the Michigan courts that it was okay for the governor to use state money on a Detroit Tigers stadium without asking the legislature, apparently on the principle of "we'll let you break the law this one time, just don't make a habit of it.") Secondly, city law can always be trumped by country law, which can be trumped by state law, which brings us back to those clever lawyers. The only ways to really clamp down on the stadium game would be either federal legislation nixing the practice (which could still be overturned by a future Congress) or a massive citizen movement to hold elected officials accountable who violate the public will on sports spending.
Of course, if we had that, we wouldn't need the referendum talcum powder.
Back in St. Louis, meanwhile, even if the state's lawyers succeed in suing the city into submission and creating an end run around the public vote requirement, the Rams stadium plan remains a long way from fruition: Gov. Nixon faces an uphill task in somehow cobbling together enough money to placate Kroenke, even with access to city cash. Still, there's something more than a bit skeevy about attorneys being paid with tax dollars to argue that any law imposing an ironclad public vote requirement, without any loopholes, is so "overly broad" that it can't possibly be legal. Go ahead and ask for your right to vote, in other words; just don't expect it to mean anything, or we may have to sue your ass.