Editorial: Public vote on the arena? It’s unneeded, but it could settle this issue

Published: Sunday, Sep. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 29, 2013 - 12:15 am

Plans to build a downtown sports and entertainment complex continue to divide Sacramento as much – and possibly more – than any other issue.

Critics call it a giveaway to the NBA and the Kings’ wealthy owners, since the project hinges on a public subsidy of at least $258million to finance the $448million arena. Many of them are calling for a referendum on the arena, and have questioned why The Bee hasn’t joined in calling for public vote.

Let us explain why.

To start with, The Bee has never been a rigid fan of direct democracy and ballot measures. The editorial board long has believed that initiatives should be reserved for those moments when representative government – the state Legislature and our City Council, for instance – is incapable of enacting needed reforms.

For all other matters, our elected leaders should be expected to act in the public interest. If they don’t, voters should elect someone else. Ballot measures on each and every decision they make do not further democracy. In fact, they hold the potential to create paralysis.

One of the reasons California’s Legislature is so ineffective – passing hundreds of bills each year but avoiding some of the state’s biggest challenges – is because of initiative paralysis. When elected representatives fear they will be second-guessed on major decisions, they find it easier to avoid the tough stuff and focus on the small bore. If you want a City Council that is even more tentative and poll-driven than it is now, by all means support an arena vote. And push for a vote on every other major decision facing the city.

In the case of the arena, the method of financing chosen by the Sacramento City Council was hardly new or sprung on the public. For more than a year, City Manager John Shirey and the council had been exploring how they could improve and monetize the value of the city’s parking assets to raise revenue for a major public project. If voters didn’t like that method of financing, they could have voiced those concerns by electing City Council members who pledged to reject it. Instead, voters elected a City Council that, by a 7-2 margin in March, endorsed using the city parking to help finance a sports and entertainment complex.

All that said, it is becoming increasingly clear that there may be a public vote on the arena, adding yet another plot twist to the seemingly never-ending Kings saga. Thanks to Chris Hansen, the Seattle billionaire who wanted to steal the Kings and who secretly bankrolled a signature-gathering effort for a referendum, local opponents claim they have nearly all the signatures they need to force an arena vote in 2014. If it makes the ballot, huge amounts of money will be spent – money that we think would be better expended elsewhere. But there’s no point getting riled up over the prospect of a public vote. If it happens, it will offer a chance to settle the arena issue, once and for all.

As we’ve stated in previous editorials, there are risks to Sacramento and its general fund with the current arena financing proposal. The plan depends heavily on city parking revenue and arena attendance meeting projections.

But there are also aspects of this plan that make it extremely attractive to anyone serious about revitalizing Sacramento’s downtown:

•  Unlike past arena proposals, this one has attracted a group of innovative Kings owners willing to invest tens of millions of dollars in Sacramento and its downtown. When was the last time that happened in Sacramento?

• Unlike Measures Q and R, which were rightly shot down by voters and opposed by The Bee’s editorial board in 2006, this proposal doesn’t depend on a sales tax increase largely borne by Sacramento County residents. By monetizing the city’s parking system, the costs would be borne by motorists across the region, including those who attend Kings games or other events at the planned arena. That makes it a much more equitable form of revenue generation than a general sales tax.

• Unlike arena proposals in some other cities, this one would not displace existing businesses and renters in a significant way. No apartment buildings would be torn down to build the sports and entertainment complex. If anything, the arena will help stimulate business around the arena, and not just on game and event nights.

The downside of a public vote on an arena is the uncertainty it could bring. This is a big, complex project, with lots of moving parts. The challenges of designing it, financing it, doing environmental reviews and obtaining permits are hardly reduced when there’s a chance that voters might reject it. A 2014 referendum may slow down the project, but we doubt it would completely trip up the work that is underway.

The upside of a public vote is the opportunity it presents for arena proponents to more clearly articulate the benefits of the project, which go way beyond keeping an NBA team in town. This is a chance to revamp and stimulate a section of downtown that has held back Sacramento and frustrated city residents and business owners for decades. We think the City Council made the right call in approving the arena deal. If it comes down to a public vote, we suspect that voters will agree.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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