St. Louis judge tosses out ballot requirement for Rams stadium, says voters didn’t say “Simon says”

Both my laptop and I are sick today (pretty sure neither of us caught it from the other), but I do need to note the big development in St. Louis, where Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley ruled that the 2002 city ordinance requiring a public vote before taxpayer money is spent on a new sports facility is “too vague to be enforced,” and struck it down, meaning it wouldn’t apply to any new Rams stadium.

The backstory, as I described it back in April when the state filed suit against the city ordinance and when I didn’t have a headache:

To help understand what’s going on here, let’s travel back in time to 2002, when the Cardinals were in the midst of arranging public funding for a new stadium of their own, and local activists were trying to head off the city and county governments from approving it without letting actual residents have a say. The city referendum requirement passed 55-45% in 2002, and a similar county requirement by an even larger margin two years later, but courts subsequently ruled that since the money had already been allocated, it couldn’t be rescinded by the public vote requirement. All future stadium projects, though, would have to go before the voters.

That’s the clause that the Jones Dome authority is now objecting to, and it’s making a rather strange stand, arguing that because the referendums’ backers drew them up so stringently — they require a public vote on any “financial assistance” including tax breaks, tax-increment financing, free land, loans, or city or county bonds — that this is unacceptably broad. If they’d only been reasonable enough to leave some loopholes that the Rams could drive a stadium-sized truck through, then this lawsuit wouldn’t be necessary.

Frawley has now essentially agreed with the state dome authority, saying that because the 2002 referendum was silent on such matters as whether police and fire services can be supplied to a new stadium without a vote, the whole ordinance needs to be scuttled. There’s still the question of how strongly the city defended the ordinance in court, given that Mayor Francis Slay supports building the Rams stadium — a group of citizens, including some who introduced the 2002 initiative in the first place, sued to intervene in the defense, but Frawley tossed out their request as well. (A separate lawsuit filed by the citizen group is still in progress, and they will likely try to appeal yesterday’s ruling as well.) So for now, the law of the state of Missouri is that if the people of St. Louis wanted a say in spending money on sports venues, they should have worded it more carefully.

For now, though, this is obviously a big step forward for the Rams stadium plan, since it now means the state just has to worry about how to finance $400 million for a new stadium plus $100 million left on the old one from the same taxes that were approved to build the Jones Dome — which seemed a mathematical impossibility back when it was first proposed, even before Gov. Jay Nixon said he’d skip using the $6 million a year in county tax money if it would require a public vote. (The county had its own public-vote requirement passed in 2004, and it remains in place.) That would leave $18 million a year to pay off $500 million in expenses, which simply can’t be done — but at least if Nixon can conquer math, he no longer needs to worry about winning over St. Louis voters as well.


16 comments on “St. Louis judge tosses out ballot requirement for Rams stadium, says voters didn’t say “Simon says”

  1. Hmm….It would be interesting to know if this judge happened to have received any campaign contributions from entities supporting public funding for a new Rams stadium. I realize this adds more work to your load, Neil, but seems like public funding of sports arenas is rife with the potential for dubious campaign contributions. Perhaps this can be included as a standard part of your reporting on these stories?

  2. That’s outside the scope of what I can do for this site, but I may look into it for a Vice piece, say.

    From what I’ve seen so far, though, it’s seldom as tidy as “judge got money from stadium interests, rules in their favor.” If anything it’s more likely that a team owner cultivates friends in the larger business community, and then they donate to campaigns — or just travel in the same social circles as mayors, judges, etc. So it’s less bribery, more peer pressure.

    Delaney and Eckstein’s book “Public Dollars, Private Stadiums” has some excellent insights into this. Which reminds me, I need to bring one of them in here for a reader chat one of these days.

  3. Once the Powers That Be have decided there’s going to be a taxpayer-funded stadium, there is no conceivable language that could be put in a law, a referendum or an initiative that could stop it. The law will be too vague, or too specific, too short or too long, too narrow or too broad. It’s rare that these things ever go to a public vote, for obvious reasons – votes are harder to ignore, so it’s best to make sure they never happen.

    The St Louis thing was always a done deal, and it goes to show that the Los Angeles Gambit worked (again). There will not be one or two new stadiums in the LA area – but there will be new ones in St Louis and San Diego! Who knows, maybe even Oakland – no doubt some local pols can be found who won’t mind bankrupting that city for a shiny new football palace. It’s not like there would be any negative consequences for doing so.

  4. Sigh. This just makes me feel all the worse about the fact that Cleveland got to vote on stadium subsidies… and has repeatedly said “sure, take whatever you need, go Browns.”

    I don’t suppose the more organized opponents in St. Louis could be persuaded to move here, where their good efforts would find (at present) a less hostile legal environment? :-)

  5. Mike, the Arts tax is 30 cents per pack in Cleveland while the stadium tax is 4.5 per pack. Why isn’t anyone (except for that guy who hangs out in Public Square holding signs all the time) complaining about the art tax?

  6. Aquib, the arts museum doesn’t make millions a year from television deals. If that is a tax just for the arts museum it does sound really high and people should complain about it.

  7. I agree with Neil’s assessment that it probably isn’t nefarious as the judge receiving a bag of cash to rule the way he did. It’s more likely subtle pressures such as the judge might belong to the same country club as the executives of the construction companies, team officials, council members, etc. and didn’t want to be known as the judge who potentially “lost” the team for the city.

    The judge who ruled that there was no basis for a stadium revote in Santa Clara lived in upscale Los Gatos and liked the 49ers and probably didn’t care one way or another how the stadium would affect life for the residents there.

  8. Re: Arts tax
    1. I can’t speak for “anyone,” just me
    2. I have never complained about the arts tax here, because
    a. it is a site about sports arena subsidies, and
    b. as Tom notes, the local arts community is not part of a league making billions, largely through government created intellectual property monopolies, and, oh yes, direct public subsidies
    3. Despite all of which, I plan to vote against renewal of the arts tax also, just like I voted against the “sin tax” renewal. I think the latter is a considerably worse idea, but I don’t think the former is so good that I won’t vote against it, too, if only out of spiteful, er, principled protest at local voters’ consistent readiness to do whatever the GCP and PD tell us to.

  9. I see that the dome is twenty years old. While this doesn’t break the record for quickest time from one arena or stadium being built to insisting on another one–I think Miami has that–how many other buildings, public or otherwise, have been declared obsolete in two decades?

    Out of idle curiosity, was the Jones Dome pushed as a means of spurring economic activity, and if so, did anyone check to see if it did that?

  10. I live in Minneapolis, where City Attorney Susan Segal found that the City Charter amendment that would give the voters a referendum for any professional sports facility over 10 million dollars could be over-ridden by the State legislature. Segal has protected the privileged time and time again and is probably now moving upward to a seat on the MN Supreme Court. She comes from wealth and has huge ties to the DFL (Democratic Farmer Labor party), which dominates Minneapolis politics. Incumbency and massive war chests will continue to keep the DFL in power. These days they mostly employ a lot of PR people to try to convince people that everything is hunky-dory in Minneapolis. The people are not buying it.

  11. Matt – If you’re against both thats perfectly fair. I just get annoyed with a lot of the people here who screamed bloody murder over the sin tax but art tax is perfectly fair. Either way you are putting a tax on a group of people to fun entertainment despite the fact that the people being taxed may or may not be the same people who partake of the entertainment being funded. You’re right the art projects being funded don’t make the money that the sports teams but thats largely because this is Cleveland and people care more about sports than arts.

  12. One other difference: At least some of the museums funded by the arts tax are free of charge. So you could at least argue that residents are getting a free amenity for their tax money, whereas with sports they’re paying twice, once with the cigarette tax, then again at the ticket office.

    Still doesn’t necessarily make the arts tax a good thing, but I think if Cavs games were free (or even discounted) people might have a different calculus.

  13. Y’know, I’ve never been to a Cavs or Browns game, but I was at an Indians game once… I think even the food and drink is cheaper at the CMA. And it’s not exactly cheap, there. :o)

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