D.C. presumptive councilmember-elect Marion Barry made his strongest statements yet yesterday on the city’s $440 million Expos stadium plan, telling the Washington Times: “I’m going to do all I can to stop it at the council level and at other levels. … I’m going to stop this baseball stadium and take the money and spend it on housing and schools.”
The question is, can he? As previously noted, a 7-6 vote for a stadium bill could turn into a 9-4 vote against once Barry and the other two new councilmembers take office in January – enough to override a mayoral veto. But if the lame-duck council has by then already passed a stadium bill, will that horse already be out of the barn?
A read of the actual stadium legislation sheds a bit of light on this. According to the Ballpark Omnibus Financing and Revenue Act of 2004, the council is to set up a “Ballpark Revenue Fund” within the city treasury, to receive tax revenue directed to pay off stadium costs. Once that’s done, the mayor is authorized to sell $500 million in bonds, and pledge the money in the city’s ballpark fund to make the bond payments.
Once the bonds are sold, the city enters into a contract with bondholders that the mayor has set up to be incredibly hard to break. Perhaps with an eye toward St. Louis, where community activists are trying to pass a referendum to cut off public payments to stadium bondholders, the D.C. bill contains this language:
The District does hereby pledge and covenant and agree with the holders of the Bonds that, subject to the provisions of the financing documents, the District will not limit or alter the revenues pledged to secure the Bonds or the basis on which such revenues are collected or allocated, will not impair the contractual obligations of the District to fulfill the terms of any agreement made with the holders of the Bonds, will not in any way impair the rights or remedies of the holders of the Bonds, and will not modify in any way, with respect to the Bonds, the exemptions from taxation provided for in this act … To the extent that any acts or resolutions of the Council may be in conflict with this act, this act shall be controlling.
That’s pretty clear. (Well, clear as legislative language goes.) The challenge, then, will be for the lame-duck council and Mayor Williams to both pass a stadium bill and sell stadium bonds before the new council meets for the first time in January. If they succeed, D.C. will be contractually bound to keeping the new stadium taxes in place until the bonds are paid off – no matter what Barry, D.C. voters, or Barry’s hat have to say about it.