Mark Paul, formerly deputy editorial page editor of The Bee and deputy treasurer of California, is the co-author, with Joe Mathews, of "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It."

Viewpoints: Don't succumb to extortionists – arena won't transform city

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 - 10:32 am

Supporters of a public subsidy for a new Kings arena tell us the choice is about who we want to be.

I don't buy the premise – 12 tall guys in baggy shorts don't a city define – but I understand the rhetorical strategy. When the facts are against you, make the argument about emotion and frame the question to make the other side look small: naysayers, old grumps, people without imagination.

The real issue is more prosaic: Is plowing $200 million into an arena the best way to use scarce public money?

The question arises because we are caught up in the game of extortion so central to the business model of modern professional sports.

The game works this way: Leagues hold the number of franchises below what the market demands. The resulting scarcity means there are always cities itching to have a team, some of them so desperately that they dangle taxpayer money to attract one.

This sets up the opportunity for extortion. The league tells the city whose team plays in the least heavily subsidized or attractive arena that it must use tax dollars to build the team a new sports palace, or risk losing its franchise to one of the eager wannabe towns. Build it, or we will go.

For any city willing to look at the facts, this is an easy choice. Contrary to the oft-repeated claims of those who support paying extortion, pro sports teams provide cities no economic advantage. On this subject economists have reached rare consensus. Be they liberal or conservative, they have found that lavishing public money on sports facilities doesn't spur economic growth, create jobs, revitalize downtowns or raise incomes overall.

The major effect is to transfer dollars from average-wage households to billionaire team owners and millionaire players, or, to use the parlance of the day, from the 99 percent to the 1 percent. The extortion game, which has ballooned to yield an annual transfer of about $2 billion a year from middle-class taxpayers to the sports super-elite, is one driver of the astonishing increase in income inequality in America over the last three decades.

No surprise there – extortionists play the game for the money, not the thrill.

So compelling is the economic evidence that those supporting subsidies have been forced to snatch, alternatively, at wisps: we have to do it for the fun, they tell us, for the sense of can-do and vigor and youthfulness, to make ourselves happy.

To appreciate the weightlessness of this argument, you need do no more than look at the lists of cities rated as most livable or as having the highest level of happiness. They are vibrant cities like Madison, Austin, Raleigh and Omaha, communities that focus on the key building blocks of success – good schools, higher education, efficient transportation, parks. Few of these happy places host major league sports. They have the imagination to grow their fun locally.

We Sacramentans weighed these arguments in 2006, then spoke emphatically. Young and old, across every ethnic community and neighborhood, we voted – not narrowly, let's remember, but by a 4-to-1 margin – against subsidizing the Kings with public funds.

The intervening years have only strengthened the case against corporate welfare for the sports business. In the wake of the housing bubble and ensuing financial panic and Great Recession, while the perpetrators of the collapse walked away with bailouts and their bonuses intact, the rest of us have seen blow after blow be struck against the public pillars of middle-class life and equal opportunity in our city.

The damage shows up everywhere around town. Schools have bigger classes and less support for students. Colleges cost more and can't offer classes students need. Policing has been cut back despite our high crime rate. The parks are shabbier, and transit offers less service at higher fares.

What has been City Hall's response? At the same moment that they rattle a tin cup for donations to keep city swimming pools open, our leaders spend a half million on consultants to tell them how they might provide $200 million in arena handouts to the top 1 percent – while avoiding putting the question again to the voters.

The most polite and generous word to describe their response is "madness."

But if madness carries the day at City Hall, it won't prevail for long.

By referendum or recall, Sacramento will have an accountability moment. And when that moment comes, it will show voters, from tea party to Occupy Wall Street, again united in common – and common-sense – conviction: Our public dollars should be devoted first to reversing the decline in Sacramento's quality of life, not paying welfare to the grasping rich.

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