If somebody listened to Gov. Jay Nixon talk about a new stadium on St. Louis riverfront, they’d get the sense that it's an opportunity too good to pass up. Not everyone agrees.
When Nixon was in St. Louis last week, the governor told a group of reporters and members of organized labor that “the impact of a project of this magnitude will be felt far beyond the playing field on Sunday and far beyond the north riverfront for the thousands of working people who will help build this iconic stadium.”
“Failure to do this, I think, is something that would move us back, and we have a chance to keep that NFL brand and move forward,” Nixon said. “Regardless of whether you’re labor or business, as you can see by the coalition here, this is a smart thing to do for taxpayers, it’s a smart thing to do for workers.”
In the twilight of his term, Nixon has thrown his full support behind building the stadium on St. Louis’ riverfront. While the project’s ability to keep the St. Louis Rams is anybody's guess, Nixon said the facility would revitalize a dormant part of the city and potentially keep football or soccer fans happy.
But while Nixon's views may find favor with some St. Louis residents or Rams fanatics, they were not very persuasive to lawmakers, such as state Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.
“Obviously, nobody wants to see the NFL leave one of our major cities,” Silvey said. “Don’t misunderstand that. I don’t think it’s ever a good thing when you lose a major sports franchise. The question is, what does it cost to the state to keep them versus what it would cost the state to lose them?”
Legislative skepticism about state assistance for the riverfront stadium isn’t new. But it may become much more relevant if Silvey gets his way.
That’s because Silvey introduced legislation to require a General Assembly vote or a vote of the people to extend existing bonds or issue new bonds — including ones for the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority. It comes as Office of Administration director Doug Nelson told lawmakers that Nixon could extend bonds without a legislative or public vote.
Silvey's bill is probably on the radar screen of stadium backers, especially since they're counting on extending bonds for the Edward Jones Dome to pay for the new facility.
“Mine is actually a statutory change, which just says ‘look, we’re not going to let one person put the other 6 million in debt without at least having a conversation,’” Silvey said. “We need to vote in the legislature or we need a vote of the public. Either one is fine with me. But you can’t have unilateral authority to that degree in my opinion.”
The fate of Silvey’s bill remains to be seen. But if it becomes law, stadium backers may face an uphill climb to get bonds extended — especially because Silvey estimated it would ultimately place the state $200 million in debt. It will be tough to convince Kansas City lawmakers to get on board, especially after Jackson County residents paid for stadium improvements with local taxes.
“As I told [former Anheuser Busch President Dave Peacock] a few weeks ago, it is a difficult sell outside of the St. Louis area,” Silvey said. “Because currently, if you look at what St. Louis gets when it comes to stadiums, they get $12 million a year: $10 million in debt service on bonds for the Edward Jones Dome, plus $2 million in maintenance. You contrast that with Kansas City, which gets $3 million a year for maintenance between two stadiums — and no debt service.”
“So it is a difficult case to make around the state that St. Louis somehow needs the state’s assistance when Kansas City did more than that by themselves and gets less than that from the state today,” he added.
Silvey isn’t alone in his view. Both state Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, and state Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, filed similar measures objecting to unilateral bond extensions. And state Rep. Jay Barnes — a Jefferson City Republican in charge of looking into a new St. Louis stadium — wrote earlier this year he’s “highly skeptical of any stadium-funding proposal.”
“On a philosophical level, stadium financing is not an appropriate role for government. This is not Rome,” Barnes wrote. “The NFL is a private business run by billionaires. Where we have it, welfare ought to be limited to those who are poor and deserving, not doled out to the wealthy or indolent.”
Still, there’s no guarantee that Silvey’s proposal will become law. Nixon, of course, could veto it. And it still needs to go through legislative chambers that are controlled by St. Louis area lawmakers.
“I have not heard anybody tell me it’s a terrible idea. I think that from a separation of powers perspective, most of my colleagues agree with me,” Silvey said. “What’s going to be interesting to me — and a number of outstate legislators — is whether it gets any traction because the bulk of our leadership in both chambers is coming from St. Louis. And if this is something that St. Louis really wants to push, this is a good time for it because they have their members in positions of leadership.”
Nixon was pressed about Silvey’s bills when he announced that labor unions would work 24-hour shifts to build the stadium. In response, he contended that lawmakers already get to vote on the bonds “each and every year” through the budgetary process.
Needless to say, Nixon’s point drew a pretty sharp rebuke from Silvey.
“It’s really disingenuous to say that the legislature gets to approve these bonds yearly when they look at the bond payment,” Silvey said. “Because first of all, I don’t think that the legislature has ever not funded a bond payment. The constitution makes our No. 1 priority in the budget to pay debt. The question is not whether or not the legislature will pay the debt. The question is whether we should be taking out the debt.”
“To say that: “Oh, if the legislature doesn’t like it; they could just not make the debt payment,’” he added. “I mean, come on!”
Silvey said when Nelson appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee, he walked through a scenario in which lawmakers voted not to pay off bonds. And it wasn’t a pretty result, to say the least.
“OK, let’s say we go down that road and the legislature decides not to make the payment, then it’s the legislature’s fault that we have now ruined the AAA bond rating,” Silvey said. “And he was like ‘yeah, pretty much.’ So that’s not a legitimate answer to say that we can decide whether to cut the check after you’ve decided to put us in debt.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.