Cleveland residents could vote in May on $160m in new tax subsidies to Indians, Cavs, Browns

One of the drawbacks of the Googlocene is that everything hangs on keywords; and so, because it didn’t come up in my various searches on “stadium” and “arena,” I completely missed Tuesday’s raucous Cuyahoga County council hearing about putting a measure on the May ballot to extend alcohol and cigarette taxes for 20 years and give the proceeds to local sports teams.

As a refresher: Back in the 1990s, Cuyahoga County built a passel of sports venues for the Browns, Indians, and Cavaliers, funding them primarily with tax surcharges on cigarettes, beer, and wine. (Upside: Drinkers and smokers don’t have organized lobbying groups. Downside: “Sin taxes” hit the poor far harder than the rich, who can only drink so many snifters of cognac.) Those taxes are set to expire next year, and the local sports teams see this as a great opportunity to get even more public money for upgrades to their facilities — everything from new water heaters to “replace obsolete scoreboard system,” which I guess fails to meet modern standards of humongosity — without “raising taxes,” since extending taxes that were set to expire doesn’t get counted as raising taxes for some reason.

Under the new plan, the sin tax would be extended for 20 years, raising about $13 million a year that would be directed to the teams. The Cavs and Indians are looking to go roughly 50-50 with that money, though the Browns are expected to demand something as well, albeit a lesser amount given that the Browns are already getting $2 million a year in added city subsidies for their own stadium renovations. The total present value would be about $160 million if the sin tax keeps bringing in the same revenue as it does at present, possibly more like $200 million if inflation causes it to rise.

The original leases on the three venues require the county-owned Gateway Corp. to pay for maintenance on the buildings, and Gateway officials insist that if the sin tax extension isn’t passed, the county would need to either raise the funds some other way, or risk having the teams break their leases and potentiall move elsewhere. That seems a pretty minor risk — there aren’t any open baseball or basketball markets close to Cleveland’s size (#18 in the Nielsen rankings), and while NFL teams don’t care as much about media markets, the Browns just got their own boodle to keep them happy — but it’s apparently the main justification for throwing a couple hundred million dollars in new money at Cleveland’s sports team owners.

The council is set to vote on holding a public ballot measure by the first week in February; if it’s approved as expected, then we should have quite the fun next three months talking about all the economic and ethical ramifications of this. Or just about the power of yes.


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