Commentary Magazine


Cuomo’s Shoddy Stadium Socialism

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has more than his share of troubles lately. The U.S. attorney’s investigation into his scandalous decision to shut down an ethics commission that got too close to one of his favorite firms raises the specter of possible legal peril and probably signals the end of his presidential ambitions. But Cuomo seems in no danger of losing his race for reelection this year. And, as he demonstrated last week, it is clear that there is no limit to his willingness to spend taxpayer dollars in an effort to bribe voters.

Cuomo’s pledge last week to consider building a new football stadium for Buffalo barely raised a ripple of protest across the state. The Buffalo Bills are the Empire State’s only entrant in the National Football League (New York’s Jets and Giants actually play across the river in New Jersey) and Cuomo’s lip service paid to the effort to ensure that the team stays in Western New York is bound to be popular in the Buffalo region and doesn’t seem to bother the rest of the state. But it should.

Let’s specify that the Bills are a beloved institution in Buffalo and important to the city’s civic pride. The fact that the most lucrative sports enterprise in the country—the National Football League—maintains franchises in at least a couple of small markets like Buffalo and Green Bay is a charming reminder of the sport’s origins. I fully sympathize with the team’s fans who rightly worry that the impending sale of the team will cause it to be moved some place where the new owners could make more money than they could in the Bills’ current home.

But the idea that states and municipalities benefit from building sports stadiums is a myth that ought to have been put to rest a long time ago. While popular with some sectors of the electorate—like those of us who like to attend games or watch them on television—the expenditure of massive amounts of taxpayer dollars on these edifices does little to boost local economies. They are, instead, nothing more or less than a direct transfer of wealth from ordinary taxpayers to the wealthy individuals who own the teams. In this case, such an “investment” by Cuomo would be nothing less than a gift in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars filched either from the already leaking Albany budget or money wrung from the state’s bondholders to the next owner of the Bills whether it is Jon Bon Jovi (rumored to be a favorite) or some other rich person who is lucky enough to be invited to join the exclusive NFL owners club.

The equation in Buffalo is the same as it has been in many other places where states and cities were blackmailed into bankrolling new stadiums even as their schools and other basic infrastructure are in bad shape. Though Bon Jovi and others who wish to buy the Bills are going through the ritual of promising to keep them in Buffalo, there will be nothing keeping the singer or anyone else from moving them some other place if they can make more money by doing so.

Though that would be a sad day for the citizens of Buffalo, that is what happens in a market economy and there is nothing illegal about it. But as bad as that would be, allowing Cuomo to raid the treasury in an effort to win favor among Bills fans would be far worse.

As in just about every other instance of new stadium building where the state paid the bill, the losers would be the taxpayers. They would pay a heavy burden in new taxes and fees to pay for a new stadium whose only purpose is to allow the Bills’ ownership to make more money on suites, tickets, concessions and parking. Even in those areas where stadiums played a part in revitalizing a neighborhood—such as Camden Yards in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—the math doesn’t add up. The citizens won’t get so much as a hot dog out of the transaction while Bon Jovi or whoever it is that winds up getting the Bills will be made immeasurably richer.

What Cuomo is proposing is nothing less than socialism for rich people and the fact that it has been done many times before elsewhere doesn’t make it any more defensible. It is bad enough when states and cities are asked to spend massively to provide new infrastructure to neighborhoods where team owners build stadiums, as was the case with the New York Yankees’ new home that opened in 2009. The Steinbrenner family put up their own cash to erect a new home for their team but it did so with the help of the state and city, which together paid for a new train station and other expensive structures. But in many other instances, such as the two baseball and two football stadiums build in Pennsylvania a decade ago, the owners of the Phillies, Pirates, Eagles, and Steelers got more or less a free ride from the Commonwealth.

Real economic development in New York would require Cuomo to ignore the Luddite environmentalist left wing of his party and approve fracking. Instead, the embattled liberal prefers a scheme that won’t offend his party base even if it will do little or nothing to help Western New York survive the Obama recovery.

This ought not to be allowed to happen again anywhere, but especially not in a state as hard up as the one misgoverned by Cuomo. Bribing voters with their own money is a basic form of corruption that is as old as the hills. But the expiration date on this particular sort of scam should have been reached a long time ago. While we may hope that the Bills stay in Buffalo, that shouldn’t be accomplished on the backs of New York taxpayers, most of which couldn’t care less about the NFL team.

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