St. Louis Stiff-Arms Local Voters to Keep Wooing the Rams

St. Louis is closer to giving the Rams $400 million for a new stadium after invalidating a law that gave its citizens final say. Will the team move to Los Angeles anyway?

Aug 7 2015, 4:55pm

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It's been quite a week for St. Louis and the Rams, with St. Louis's plans for a new stadium to keep the Rams in St. Louis, and also the Rams' plans to move to Los Angeles, as well as the Raiders and the Chargers' plans to move to Los Angeles, which will only happen if the Rams don't move to Los Angeles, which will only happen if St. Louis builds the Rams a new stadium, which may happen after the events of this week, but still may not.

OK, that was a lot to absorb. Let's start at the beginning.

READ MORE: Your Votes Don't Count: How Sports Stadium Welfare Deals Shut Out the Public's Vote

Back in 2002, the owners of the St. Louis Cardinals decided that they wanted a new stadium to replace Busch Stadium, which had been built in 1966 during the "concrete donut" era of multipurpose sports venues. A group of local residents, unhappy that city officials had approved public money for the replacement stadium without asking the public, put a referendum on the ballot that would require any taxpayer-funded stadium expenses in St. Louis to be approved by a citywide vote. It passed by a healthy margin, 55 to 45 percent, and two years later a similar countywide measure passed with an even larger majority. Even though a court ruled that it was too late to require a vote on subsidies for the Cardinals' new ballpark, the citizenry at least knew they would have a say the next time a local sports team owner came around with his hand out.

The next team owner with his hand out, of course, was St. Louis Rams honcho Stan Kroenke, who took advantage of his unbelievable sweetheart lease to start demanding a new stadium just 18 years after he got the old one. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, terrified of losing one of his state's teams to Los Angeles—a city the Rams actually called home for nearly three times as long as they've been in St. Louis—proposed a Rube Goldberg tangle of funding streams that would ultimately tap city, county, and state dollars to cover about $400 million of the cost. Because the 2002 ballot measure would require a vote on that, and because Nixon didn't want to subject his $400 million stadium-funding proposal to the whims of mere voters, he immediately sued the city of St. Louis to invalidate the 13-year-old measure.

On Monday, Nixon won:

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley declared invalid the city ordinance requiring a public vote, calling sections "too vague to be enforced." The law has so many "uncertainties," he wrote in his ruling, "their sum makes a task for us which at best could be only guesswork."

Stan Kroenke enjoys a refreshing beverage between "Sabotage" takes. Photo by Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Judge Frawley's ruling is long and has a lot to parse, but the core finding is that the 2002 ordinance is "so vague as to be unenforceable," apparently because it was written extremely broadly ("any City assistance of value, direct or indirect, whether or not channeled through an intermediary"). Of course, the ordinance had been written precisely that way because its drafters were afraid of leaving the kind of loopholes that other cities' teams have driven trucks full of taxpayer cash through.

Now, there have been some suggestions—including a failed motion to intervene by residents—that the city lawyers charged with defending the ordinance may not have been, shall we say, entirely enthusiastic in their jobs. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is a big backer of Nixon's stadium plan. In fact, Slay stated on Wednesday that he had no intention of appealing Monday's ruling or calling for a public vote, on the grounds that having an NFL team is "one of the things that make living in a big city fun."

Meanwhile, a group of citizens—including Jeanette Mott Oxford, the activist who helped pass the 2002 referendum and later served four terms in the Missouri state legislature—are attempting to appeal Frawley's decision on their own.

The prospect of mayors overruling their constituents on spending decisions when they have an idea that's "fun" might be a bit unnerving for sticklers about that whole democracy thing. It's another indication, though, of the rough road that local citizens face when trying to have a say in stadium decisions: you can vote for limits on what the government can do without your permission, you can even vote for it twice, but there's still a chance that a bunch of lawyers will determine that it's invalid because you forgot to say "Simon says."

Following Frawley's ruling, there has been lots of speculation that the Rams' stadium plan will move full speed ahead. While the referendum defeat, if upheld, certainly removes one roadblock, a far bigger (and more familiar) one remains: money.

Initially, Governor Nixon proposed to finance the new Rams stadium with the same government spending plan as the current stadium: $24 million a year, with half coming from the state, and the other half split between the county and the city. Unfortunately, the new stadium's public cost would not only be higher—$400 million now versus $300 million then—but would also need to account for the roughly $100 million debt remaining on the Edward Jones Dome, plus about $40 million in needed maintenance. (Under Nixon's plan, St. Louis would keep the Jones Dome intact, apparently in order to keep hosting conventions, which is a terrible, terrible idea.) Then, earlier this year, Nixon decided to jettison from the new stadium plan $6 million a year in funding from the county, because it still has that referendum requirement and, unlike Mayor Slay, county leaders are actually attached to it.

So that leaves us with ... hang on, let me call up a calculator. There would be $540 million in costs with $18 million a year to pay it off over 30 years, which would work if St. Louis could just get an interest rate of ... zero percent. Hm.

Empty your pockets, abandon democracy, and Santa will consider it. Photo by Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Nixon is undoubtedly working hard to fill that gap with another source of public money now that he doesn't have to worry about this whole legal battle. One recent proposal: giving $50 million in tax credits to a nonprofit corporation, which would sell the credits and return the proceeds to the state, which would use them on the Rams. Did I say Rube Goldberg or what? Still, it remains a big hill to climb, even if Nixon now only needs the state legislature's approval.

Fun fact: Nixon actually tried asserting that he didn't need the legislature's permission either, but backed off quickly when the legislature started baring its lawyers.

The entire mess is why I don't think anyone can predict what NFL teams, if any, will end up in Los Angeles in 2016, an outcome everyone—including, most recently, New York Giants owner John Mara—keeps insisting is inevitable. The Rams' owner appears to have the strongest interest in moving—you'll notice Kroenke's name doesn't come up in any of the St. Louis stadium talks, though that's mostly because the man is allergic to public statements. The team also has the strongest offer of public cash for a stadium in their current hometown, assuming the Rube Goldberg machine doesn't run out of steam before getting to $400 million. The Chargers have an offer on the table from San Diego that nobody really likes, while the Raiders haven't even gotten that far with Oakland. Oh, and did I mention that the only serious contender to be a temporary NFL home in Los Angeles is prohibited from hosting more than one team at a time?

In circumstances like these, sports leagues' reflex is to milk the clock: keep dropping hints that somebody is going to Los Angeles, and hope that local elected officials panic and start throwing around money. Just so long as none of those actual voters get a say. They only ruin everything.