Whether required or not, demand for vote on new stadium is growing louder
It would be fair to classify Paul Meinhold as a long-suffering St. Louis Rams fan.
The St. Charles native purchased personal seat licenses for the team when players like Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Az-Zahir Hakim constituted the Greatest Show on Turf. But Meinhold bailed out on his season tickets once the team descended into mediocrity.
Needless to say, Meinhold isn’t a fan of St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke. And he’s against spending public money to build a roughly $1 billion riverfront stadium to keep the team in town.
“I don’t like the idea of the city or region held hostage by a billionaire football owner,” Meinhold said.
As currently conceived, the stadium plan would be paid for partially by extending bonds now paying off the Edward Jones Dome. That arrangement, some say, makes it possible for the state and the city to pay off the new facility without a vote of the General Assembly or a citywide referendum.
That’s not sitting well with elected officials across the political spectrum. They say that even if bonds for a new facility could be extended through a stroke of a pen, some sort of vote should happen anyway.
Meinhold agrees. “A vote by the public would be certainly called for in this situation. It is, at the end of the day, taxpayer dollars that would be funding the stadium,” he said.
While not completely dismissing the idea of some sort of vote, Gov. Jay Nixon predicted that the public will embrace the outdoor facility as a chance for economic development – and to keep professional football in the Gateway City.
“That area of the riverfront needs to be reformed. You have 53 buildings there, only three of which are occupied,” Nixon said last week. “This is a significant chance for St. Louis to redo that riverfront in an iconic, positive way and stay an NFL city at the same time.”
By ballot or by fiat?
The question of a legislative or popular vote to extend the bonds has been an issue throughout the Rams’ stadium saga.
Earlier this year, Office of Administration director Doug Nelson told a House committee that Nixon didn’t need legislative approval to extend the bonds for the new stadium. And there’s some ambiguity whether a St. Louis ordinance or a St. Louis County charter amendment would require a ballot initiative.
But whether or not there's a legal requirement for a vote is irrelevant to several elected officials.
Case in point: St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said earlier this year that he understood that a bond extension wouldn’t require a countywide vote. But he was adamant that a ballot initiative should occur anyway -- which may be one reason the county isn’t involved anymore in funding the new stadium.
“As a general matter, if there’s new money on a new stadium and that is what’s being called for – if it was what’s being called for – a vote is necessary,” Stenger said. “It’s unquestionable.”
Stenger isn't the only one who feels this way. St. Louis Alderwoman Donna Baringer, D-16th Ward, said that even though she likes the idea of developing the riverfront, she promised her constituents that they would get a say in any new stadium.
“If they’re going to use your tax dollars to build a stadium, you have the right to vote on it,” Baringer said. “The city of St. Louis residents heard it from me and that’s the way it was told to me.”
State lawmakers, such as House Majority Leader Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, oppose Nixon extending the bonds by fiat.
“I have very deep concerns about publicly financing another stadium,” Richardson said. “There are very serious questions about whether the governor can extend those bonds without voter approval. There are also very serious questions about whether the governor without a vote can obligate, essentially, future legislatures to force us to pay those bonds going forward.”
Even diehard sports fans say a vote is necessary.
State Sen. Ryan Silvey’s office features a gorgeous panoramic photograph of Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. It also features an autographed portrait of former Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan punching former Chicago White Sox great Robin Ventura.
His fandom aside, Silvey, R-Kansas City, is steering legislation through the General Assembly requiring either a legislative vote or a statewide vote to extend bonds for the new stadium. He doesn’t like the idea of the legislature being left out of the conversation of funding the new stadium.
“I don’t think that should be done unilaterally. I think that the people or their representatives should have a say in that process,” Silvey said. “Now, keep in mind: I’m not saying we shouldn’t do a stadium proposal or that the state shouldn’t have some participation in it. What I’m saying is insofar the state does participate in one, it should be a collective decision."
Scared to lose?
Silvey suggests that Nixon could be pursuing a bond extension by fiat because pouring more taxpayer dollars into a stadium could be a tough sell.
That’s especially the case, he said, in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
“My point has always been: If it’s a good proposal, if it makes sense, then you should be able to garner the votes for it,” Silvey said. “But as I told Mr. Peacock and others, it is going to be an uphill battle. There is going to be a lot of questions to why the state needs to participate.”
For his part, Nixon said he was confident that the stadium would win public support if any sort of vote transpired.
“As we move forward, we’re going to continue to hone this to get to the best deal possible,” Nixon said. “But it’s one that I think that the public [will support], when they see that and the economic development opportunities here.”
Indeed, the funding details for the new stadium are still being sorted out. And that may add to the uncertainty about whether some sort of bond extension vote will occur.
Jim Woodcock, a spokesman for a task force developing the stadium proposal, said in an e-mail to St. Louis Public Radio that “there is no timetable for this. The process to determine the appropriate financing plan to see this plan through is evolving. As it does, we will refrain from comment.”
Nixon didn’t completely dismiss the idea of a legislative vote or a citywide referendum. He said that he’s “always said that if votes were necessary, then those votes would occur. As we work toward the finalization of this, we’ll look at it.”
Whether a vote would actually pass in the legislature or in St. Louis remains to be seen -- if it happens at all. But even though he’s just one vote out of many, St. Louis resident Isaac Smith says he would enthusiastically support a new stadium.
He said football provides an escape to city residents in search of amusement, the type of activity that he doesn’t want to see flee to the Los Angeles area.
“It’s very important that we have sports there. Without sports, everybody is going to be like bored and have nothing to do,” Smith said. “It’s going to be like dead silence. Without [any] football, it’s like we’ve got no life.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.