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Government, Politics & Issues

As supporters count noses, aldermen debate a public vote on stadium funding

Supporters of legislation that would force a public vote on funding for the new football stadium show the results of a city-wide poll on the use of public dollars.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Efforts to force a citywide vote on public funding for a proposed new football stadium north of Laclede's Landing remain alive at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, but future forward progress will be difficult.

Members of the city's Convention and Tourism Committee heard two hours of testimony on 15th Ward Democrat Megan-Elliya Green's bill Monday without taking a vote.

"I think that in the end we will have the votes to get it out of committee and onto the floor before the end of the year," Green said.

Green's bill would put the financing agreement on the March 2016 ballot. Comptroller Darlene Green (no relation) -- who is against the funding plan in its current form -- would have to prepare a fiscal note outlining the financial impact to the city. Right now, funding from the state and city is expected to total $390 million, with $145 million of that coming from the city.

The bill faces a lot of choke points. The chair of the tourism committee has to schedule a hearing next week, and it has to clear that committee. The Board of Aldermen will have to suspend its own rules to be able to get the measure to Mayor Francis Slay in time for a March vote, and passage isn't a guarantee. Neither is the mayor's signature.

But Green said her effort would be helped by polling that shows a vast majority of St. Louis voters want to weigh in on stadium funding. And those who testified to the committee Monday were solidly in that camp.

"When voters have a responsible financial package in front of them, and they've had time to digest what those numbers look like, they actually more times than not vote in favor of stadium proposals," said 6th Ward Alderman Christine Ingrassia, a co-sponsor of her colleague's bill.

"I don't care if people vote yes or no. What I want people to have is the right to have a vote, and then we need to go by that," said Alderman Sharon Tyus, the 1st Ward Democrat and a member of the Convention and Tourism Committee.

Former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford led a successful 2002 petition drive that put a requirement for public funding into city ordinances and the county charter, though Judge Thomas Frawley invalidated that law in August. She remains opposed to any form of public financing for a stadium.

"I personally believe it's corrupt for the kind of strong-arm tactics to be used that sports teams often use, like threatening to move," Oxford said. "I think it's important the citizens stand up to that kind of bullying, and I think that the right of the people to vote is a sacred thing."

Though no one spoke explicitly against giving city residents a say, Alderman Marlene Davis of the 19th Ward said there needed to be more clarity about the financing package before a potential public vote. Others raised questions about the methodology of a recent robo-call poll that showed nearly 79 percent of registered voters in the city opposed public money for stadiums. 

Collateral damage

A public vote on stadium funding could scuttle the financing plan. But there's growing concern that the lack of a public vote could scuttle other important ballot measures.

"We’re going to get a vote on the stadium regardless. You can make it a vote on the stadium, or we can make it a vote on your bond issues," said Matthew Caroll-Schmidt, a defense attorney in the city.

A $180 million bond issue failed in August, just days after a judge invalidated that 2002 voter-initiated law. It was clear to some aldermen that the ruling contributed to the outcome.

Aldermen could try again to get a bond issue in front of the voters. But of greater importance is an April 2016 vote on the earnings tax, which makes up a third of the city's general revenue.

"I will promise you that I will work against the earnings tax," said former comptroller Virvus Jones, who takes some credit for the defeat of the bond issue. "I will work against any tax that comes on the ballot, until we spend more money on trying to alleviate poverty."

Green said those indications of voter discontent were precisely the reason she introduced her bill.

"We have some pretty serious infrastructure needs, we have a proposed tax out there for police, and if the public does not think that we are taking their viewpoints into account when making budgetary decisions, I'm not sure we're going to be there for us to fund the things that we need to run on a daily basis," Green said.

Defeating the earnings tax wouldn't be easy. In 2011, the committee supporting the earnings tax spent more than $660,000, with the financial backing of labor and business. 

The legal game

In addition to Green's legislative efforts, there are ongoing legal battles to force a public vote on funding.

Mayor Slay chose not to appeal Frawley's August ruling invalidating the 2002 ordinance. Three taxpayers who had sought permission to join the case, including Oxford, the former state representative, asked a higher court to review Frawley's decision to keep them off.

Oxford and another city resident have also filed their own lawsuit asking Judge David Dowd to prevent the city from spending any more money on the proposed new stadium until a fiscal note is prepared and voters have the chance to weigh in. Oxford has also sued under the state's Sunshine Act to get access to records about the stadium spending.

A fourth lawsuit, filed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, seeks to halt any additional spending on the stadium without explicit approval from the Missouri General Assembly.

The Ways and Means committee will hold another public hearing on the funding measure on Tuesday at the O'Fallon Park Recreation Complex, 4343 West Florissant Ave. The hearing begins at 6 p.m.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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