Of all the examples of economic innumeracy that are brought to bear around stadium deals, confusing tax revenue raised for a project and tax revenue raised by a project is one of the most common. You’d think the concept would be simple enough: If you raise sales taxes, say, and they come in faster (or slower) than expected, that doesn’t make whatever you do with those sales taxes any better or worse of a deal, whether it’s building a stadium or setting the bills on fire to see if the Secret Service arrests you.
In his Washington Times column on Tuesday, sports columnist Thom Loverro starts out almost getting it right, declaring that thanks to the business tax, ticket taxes, and ballpark sales taxes on the Nationals stadium coming in faster than expected, “if city officials wanted to, they could pay off the 30-year mortgage on the $691 million ballpark — a $585 million debt now down to $395 million — 10 years early.” Then he wrote:
The cries of financial ruin and tax nightmares that ballpark opponents carried at the time into the debate against paying for the new ballpark ring hollow now, as the city’s coffers are overflowing with ballpark revenue.
I don’t actually recall anyone predicting financial ruin as the result of tax revenues falling short — and, besides, they easily could have, if the Washington economy had zigged instead of zagged. But, yes, better for the money you expected to arrive to actually arrive, instead of ending up with an e-pulltab fiasco that requires additional taxes to make up the shortfall. “Overflowing with ballpark revenue” isn’t quite accurate, but surely Loverro doesn’t literally mean—
The ballpark has been a gold mine for the city
Okay, that’s just plain wrong — or at least, plain wrong if all you’re doing is describing tax receipts. Let’s examine why:
- By far the biggest portion of the Nats stadium debt — more than half the public total — is being paid off by that tax on large D.C. businesses. D.C.’s local economy is booming, and that’s good! But that’s still money that, if the tax surcharge had been passed for any other purpose, could be going to pay for something else — the fact that D.C. is collecting money faster to turn over to the Nationals isn’t a plus.
- Increased in-stadium sales taxes are generated by actual stadium business, so this is a plus. It’s not as big a plus as stadium proponents would like you to believe, though, as some of that money would have been spent in D.C. anyway — so if Nats fans are spending more on hot dogs, that generates more sales taxes at the stadium, but less sales taxes wherever they would be eating if they weren’t at the game.
- The new ticket tax surcharge is completely new, so more money there actually is coming from the team, yay! That’s also by far the smallest share of the money, though, less than 10%, so less yay.
In short, this is all good enough news, but doesn’t say squat about whether the stadium has been a fiscal success for D.C. — we have no idea whether tax revenue is up as a result of the stadium, just that tax revenue is up, period, so with more money sloshing around, there’s more to hand over to the Nationals more quickly. An equally accurate headline would have been “D.C. spending more money on Nationals Park debt each year than anticipated,” but that would have sounded like more of a downer.
I don’t entirely blame Loverro: It’s clear that this story was entirely prompted by D.C. councilmember Jack Evans (he’s the only person quoted in it, and the only source for the tax revenue figures), who never met a stadium deal he didn’t like, so would presumably be putting a positive spin on the Nats deal even if it had to be funded by selling public monuments. (“Who really visits the Jefferson Memorial anyway, amirite?”) It’s still a grossly misleading article, though, plus a single-source story where the source has a vested interest in making the project look good to make himself look good, so, yeah. Bad columnist, no donut.