If there’s one issue that’s provoked more fiery passions among St. Louis politicians, it’s using their constituents’ dollars to fund sports stadiums.
From the unsuccessful venture to keep Rams football in St. Louis to a pending proposal to nab a Major League Soccer team, there’s little question that opponents and proponents of the funding method have strong opinions — including the Democratic candidates seeking to become St. Louis’ next mayor.
Because almost all of the area’s sports facilities are located in the city of St. Louis, the next mayor will have a big say over whether tax dollars go toward new or existing structures. He or she also may be a key cog in trying to get St. Louis or St. Charles counties involved in regional attractions, such as the convention center.
From a short-term perspective, the winner of the March 7 primary could use their bully pulpit to campaign for or torpedo two April ballot items that are critical for funding the soccer stadium. The first is a sales tax increase primarily for expanding light rail, which also would raise the city’s use tax. The other initiative would steer that use tax hike toward funding the soccer stadium.
Here’s what the candidates have to say about funding stadiums:
St. Louis Public School Board member Bill Haas
Haas said funding sports stadiums is a distraction from some the city’s major problems, such as educating children and fighting crime.
The Harvard-educated attorney said he is opposed to both ballot initiatives that would help fund the soccer stadium.
“This is a terrible sales tax we have on the ballot,” Haas said. “I’d rather have police than police cameras. And I’d rather have money for education instead of a north-south MetroLink.”
He went onto say that “when the community gives me $45 million for more police and for my education initiatives, then they can have their damn soccer stadium.”
St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones
While she does not have a vote on the Board of Aldermen, Jones was publicly opposed to funding a new stadium aimed at keeping the NFL here. She’s also opposed to the ballot initiatives.
Among other things, Jones said she’s dismayed that St. Louis taxpayers have had to foot the bill for sports facilities – and not residents of St. Louis County or St. Charles County .
“The moment when I say ‘yes, we should put public money in’ is when we have all of the counties in the region at the table. And we don’t. We just have the city at the table,” she said. “We need some sort of regional authority where we can all put our money in for new attractions.”
Jones said she would make a stronger pitch to elected officials like St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger to have more of the region involved in stadium funding.
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd
The 22nd Ward alderman voted against a financing plan that would have directed city tax dollars to the scuttled football stadium. He also voted against legislation funding improvements for the Scottrade Center.
As far as the two initiatives go, Boyd voted in favor of the proposed sales tax increase and abstained on the other ballot item directing the use tax for the soccer stadium.
“Here’s the process I would go through for a stadium deal. No. 1: Does it really create good paying jobs for the citizens of St. Louis?” Boyd said. “No, 2: Will the city generate enough meaningful, impactful revenue where we can give pay raises to city employees and increase city services? And No 3: Does it fit with the overall plan of the city.”
St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed
Reed played a major role in the drama over the NFL stadium, ultimately deciding to vote for a financing plan. His support came after extensive changes to the proposal, including a push to increase the number of minorities and women involved in construction.
“When we look at these developments, we have to begin to break new ground to create opportunities for people all across the city of St. Louis and to put our tax dollars to work in a different manner,” Reed said. “When I looked at the Rams’ stadium deal, I said ‘this is an opportunity to establish some new goals moving forward.’”
More recently, Reed voted to put both the sales tax and use tax ballot initiatives up for a vote. He was the sponsor of the bill to spruce up the Scottrade Center, but ended up voting against his own legislation after the Board of Alderman swiftly sent it to Mayor Francis Slay’s desk.
Alderman Lyda Krewson
Krewson supported NFL stadium financial plan and backed placing the sales tax and use tax initiatives on the April ballot.
“I love soccer. I think most St. Louisans love soccer,” she said. “And I hope we’re able to get a MLS team here. I really do wish that the city of St. Louis would not own that stadium.”
But the 28th Ward alderman voted against the Scottrade Center legislation. She also said the city “does have to have more than just cops and fixing potholes and that sort of thing if we want to attract people and businesses.”
“Part of the reason this question is so difficult for all of us is that it’s being made just by the city of St. Louis,” Krewson said. “It falls on the backs on those people and those businesses if we are going to have a soccer stadium. … Why aren’t we making this decision together with the county?”
Former Alderman Jimmie Matthews
Matthews is generally skeptical about spending city money on sports stadiums. “It’s the taxpayers money, we ought to spend it to help the taxpayers,” he said.
Still, Matthews said, he wouldn’t have necessarily opposed the NFL, MLS or Scottrade Center deals. He did contend that he could have gotten a better deal than Slay.
“If Mayor Slay ran his own business the way he’s running the city’s business, he’d be long out of business before 16 years of service,” he said.
Alderman Antonio French
Like Reed, French backed the NFL stadium proposal after proponents altered key aspects of it. That included a commitment from Slay to deal with crime in a more comprehensive manner.
“What we were willing to do is to do the first step of a multiple step dance,” French said. “We made the first step. And if [Rams owner Stan Kroenke] made another step and if the state came in, then we could dance. We made the first step and it died real quick.”
The 21st Ward alderman ended up voting against the Scottrade Center legislation. He also was opposed to the ballot initiative diverting the possible boost in the use tax for the soccer stadium. But French did support placing the sales tax increase primarily for light rail up for a vote.
“It cannot be on the city taxpayers alone to bear the burden of these stadiums,” he said.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum