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Capitol Perspectives: How Can They Say No?

Phill Brooks
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Gov. Nixon with Jim McNerney, the Chairman, President & CEO of Boeing

Gov. Nixon with Jim McNerney, the Chairman, President & CEO of Boeing

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How can they say no?

That was the essential question raised years ago by the late sports broadcaster Howard Cosell. His question is at the center of the Missouri legislature’s decision to offer up to $1.7 billion in state tax dollars to entice Boeing to expand in Missouri.

Cosell strongly criticized the approach of NFL teams in demanding millions of taxpayer dollars for new stadiums to keep their profit-making teams in town.

“It is common practice now for sports franchise owners to rip off great cities in financial distress either by franchise removal or threat of franchise removal,” he wrote in his 1985 book ‘I Never Played the Game.’

“They thought they had a license to do exactly as they pleased, particularly with regard to carpetbagging franchises — or threatening to carpetbag franchises if the cities in which they played didn’t come up with bigger stadiums, better tax breaks, and other concessions.”

Three years after Cosell’s book, Missouri learned the price for standing up to that kind of pressure.

In response to Missouri’s decision to say “no” to demands for tax dollars to build a new football stadium in St. Louis, the football team once known as the St. Louis Cardinals is now known as the Arizona Cardinals.

Missouri officials learned from that experience. Just a few years later the state agreed to kick in taxpayer funds to build a new football stadium in St. Louis. As a result, a team once known as the Los Angeles Rams has become the St. Louis Rams.

But now, there’s the threat the Rams will leave unless some sort of package is put together to give them a better stadium — even while the government-financed bonds for the current stadium have not been paid off.

Little has been made public about the negotiations, but if the past is any indication, I suspect Missouri public officials again will be asked to say “yes” to the idea of kicking in public money to keep a profit-making football team in Missouri.

Can our elected officials, really say “no” at the risk of being blamed for costing the state’s metropolitan area its NFL franchise? Could they say “no” to the tremendous economic advantages from Boeing locating a new manufacturing plant in Missouri?

The price Missouri paid for once saying “no” and the advantages it gained from later saying “yes” kept swirling in my mind as I listened to the debates in Missouri’s legislature about the Boeing plan.

I remember an interview with Cosell years ago when he suggested that the ultimate solution to the NFL carpet-bagging threat was for Congress to pass a federal law prohibiting the near blackmail between states by corporate interests.

In the Kansas City region, something akin to Cosell’s idea has been raised by business leaders who have asked their two states to stop giving tax breaks to businesses to move from one state’s side of the city to the other.

Gov. Jay Nixon endorsed that idea earlier this year. But that would be just a two-state deal. It would not stop the nationwide competition among states of offering tax breaks to get companies to move.

In the meantime, for the 2014 legislative session, one legislator has proposed the state give rewards to private persons who can recruit non-Missouri businesses to move their jobs to our state.

What a fascinating idea. Missouri would finance something akin to bounty hunters that travel around the country to seduce businesses to move out of their states. Of course, the response might be that other states would fund their own bounty hunters to solicit Missouri businesses to move.

If states are going to be allowed to compete among themselves for jobs, businesses and even NFL teams, how can we expect our elected leaders to say “no?”

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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