The Athletics are headed to Las Vegas eventually, with a deal in place with the city, county, and state for a publicly financed stadium that will get them out of Oakland, and into their fourth home city in their 123-year existence. Every hurdle was cleared in the lead up to this agreement, known as SB1, save one: someone forgot to ask Nevada’s educators what they thought about this use of public funds. They’ve made themselves heard in the time since the agreement to bring the A’s to Vegas and help build a park for them, however. That’s by forming a political action committee, submitting a referendum to be signed by Nevada’s voters, which, if it receives enough signatures, will be voted upon in 2024.
The Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), which formed the PAC, is not the first group to attempt to stop a ballpark from using public funds through a referendum. St. Louis attempted to stop the Cardinals from building a ballpark financed by public funds, as Neil deMause wrote at the ever appropriately named Field of Schemes back when this PAC, Schools Over Stadiums, first formed in Nevada:
The history of trying to kill stadium deals retroactively isn’t a glorious one — perhaps best remembered for the St. Louis voter referendum to place limits on sports subsidies that was passed after the Cardinals got a publicly funded stadium deal, only to fall victim to the established legal principle of “no backsies” — but Nevada’s referendum laws work slightly differently, so this is at least a possibility.
deMause was not the only one to recognize that Nevada’s laws are different than those of St. Louis and Missouri, as Chris Daly, the Deputy Executive Director of Government Relations for the NSEA, explained to Baseball Prospectus. “While our preference would have been to refer the entirety of SB1, Schools Over Stadiums’ attorneys carefully crafted our referendum to target the state taxes to be used for stadium bonding. This addresses the issue raised by Steve Hill of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (and an unregistered lobbyist for the stadium bill) related to the timing of a public vote versus a contract between the Stadium Authority and the A’s.”
Basically, unlike with the St. Louis situation, it doesn’t matter if there’s a preexisting agreement in place; that alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the people of Las Vegas from making their voices heard on this matter, by way of Schools Over Stadiums and their referendum. Daly continued: “Even if the Las Vegas Stadium Authority and the A’s have entered into a development agreement before the vote on the referendum, voters could still remove the state taxes as well as the credit enhancement. This is due to language included in the particular sections of SB1 we are targeting, reserving the state’s right to amend or repeal the commitment of state funds. Since we believe the stadium financing plan is like a house of cards, a successful referendum would likely remove all public funding from the stadium project.” Given A’s owner John Fisher has been mum about exactly how he’s going to secure the rest of the financing needed to build the ballpark, and there are plenty of loopholes for the A’s to start pulling even more money out of the public coffers—which is how $380 million becomes $600 million—it’s hard to argue against the “house of cards” analogy.
All of that makes a lot of sense, and explains why Nevada’s teachers would bother when St. Louis failed so quickly and spectacularly. But why are they going after this stadium bill, anyway? Much of it has to do with the fact that, even before the A’s were planning to come to town, Nevada wasn’t allocating nearly enough of its budget to its education system.
“Nevada ranks 48th in the nation in education funding, with the largest class sizes in the country. Nevada struggles with teacher vacancies, leaving thousands of classrooms covered by long-term substitutes,” said Daly. “NSEA made a big push during this year’s legislative session to get Nevada to do better. Nearly 1,000 educators and supporters rallied in front of the legislature toward the end of the session, imploring state leaders to do more to help our schools. Instead, the politicians turned their attention away from struggling educators and students to give away the store to a California billionaire.”
Daly continued, “NSEA opposed this $380M giveaway. We couldn’t help but point out the irony of giving public money to the A’s after being the only state to receive 3 F’s in education funding in the 2022 ‘Making the Grade’ report.”
One of the arguments put forth by the A’s and proponents of a stadium deal was that no new taxes would be introduced by it. As if the money would just spring from out of the ether, source unknown, without any effects elsewhere on areas where public funds could be utilized instead. To go back to deMause’s research on the Vegas ballpark bills, the use of tax credits and tax-increment financing (TIF) would simply take money away from other services that would require it. So, unless the plan would then be to stop fixing roads, or funding hospitals, or paying for teachers, then new taxes would have to be created to collect the funds to pay for those things: those new taxes might not directly go toward the stadium, and therefore through some technically correct magic you could say they aren’t new taxes for the ballpark, but they would be due to the use of the public funds allocated that way, and that’s the same thing even if you can word it as if it is not. Alternatively, the state of Nevada could simply not give schools the funding they need. Which, given the information Daly provided, seems like something the state is already doing. Or not doing, depending on how you want to phrase that.
The point is, the money for more teachers and better-funded schools exists, but the state has chosen to give it to John Fisher. Just like, previously, a record $750 million was given to the National Football League’s Raiders—also taken from Oakland—in order to build Allegiant Stadium. If the A’s go for the full $600 million, while public funds are still being used to pay for Allegiant… well, Nevada’s schools won’t be filling those vacancies anytime soon.
And consider that the plan for paying for Allegiant hasn’t actually worked out: Emergency funds have been pulled from cash reserves on multiple occasions, because of the hit tourism took from the COVID-19 pandemic; taxes levied on hotel rooms were expected to pay for bonds sold to fund Allegiant, and, well. You need hotel rooms to be paid for in order for their use to be taxed. The point is, the same thing could very realistically go down with the A’s, causing another crunch on the available public funds.
This has all happened without any official input from the people it would actually impact: the citizens of Nevada. As Daly put it, “We filed a referendum petition to give Nevada voters the chance to weigh in on state tax funding to pay for stadium bonds. We hope to force a public conversation about Nevada’s priorities, the state of Nevada schools, and whether public money should go to giveaways like the A’s stadium instead of public services.”
It should be noted, too, that Schools Over Stadiums isn’t opposed to having an MLB team in Las Vegas. It’s just the way that the city is acquiring one, at the expense of schools, of the needs of the people of the state, that’s the problem. “We are making an appeal for Nevada to prioritize schools, so our committee doesn’t have a position on the A’s specifically, just on the use of public funds. So our campaign material will focus on the choice between schools and stadiums, ” said Daly. “With that said, there is a very strong sentiment from most of us individually that if there’s to be Major League Baseball in Las Vegas, it should be with an expansion team in a privately funded stadium (similar to the Oak View Group proposal south of the Strip to accommodate an NBA team) that’s probably at a location off the Las Vegas Strip.”
The days of privately funded stadiums in MLB are over, as the appeal of the stadium grift is so strong that it might mean we’re never actually going to see the league expansion commissioner Rob Manfred loves to drop hints about. Still, though, these are the kinds of demands that cities should be making. Why aren’t all of these parks privately funded? Because then the teams wouldn’t stay in the cities? They wouldn’t have many places to go if cities and counties and states refused to pay their way. Nevada could use hundreds of millions of public dollars on the education of its children, but instead, those funds are going to the Raiders and Allegiant, to John Fisher’s A’s, so that Fisher can borrow less money (at a low, low interest rate) from a bank, and pay it back faster, giving him the ability to pocket more cash sooner than if he had to pay for all of this himself, or, God forbid, dip into the money he already has to help make it work. He wouldn’t want his $2.5 billion net worth to drop a cent. Instead, teachers and students and the future of Nevada must suffer so that Fisher can be god-king of a state whose largest paper is devoted to excusing the behavior of people like him.
In an ideal world, as far as these things go, the referendum gets the 100,000+ signatures it needs from Nevada’s four districts, and then the people vote to keep these public funds from becoming available to the A’s, halting the construction of a stadium that suddenly can’t be paid for as agreed to. The A’s could conceivably become Oakland’s problem again, with public financing a problem there, too, but that just leaves them in a position to say no, which might even be easier to do with the A’s more stuck and with less leverage than they just had. Remember, too, that the A’s needed a stadium deal in place by 2024 in order to continue to receive the revenue-sharing they’re not supposed to be eligible for as a team in one of the largest media markets in the league.
Is this likely? On the heels of the Rays grabbing upwards of $730 million in public funds from Pinellas County and St. Petersburg to build a stadium right next to the one that’s so horribly located it’s kept the Rays’ attendance down far more than the Trop itself ever did, it’s hard to feel optimistic. That’s no reason to preemptively quit, though, and given that Schools Over Stadiums actually has a wrench big enough to throw into the works and break something with it, maybe there is even reason to hope that Fisher isn’t just going to get what he wants just because things have always worked out for him before.
Marc Normandin currently writes on baseball’s labor issues and more at marcnormandin.com, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon. His baseball writing has appeared at SB Nation, Defector, Global Sport Matters, Deadspin, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, The Guardian, The Nation, FAIR, and TalkPoverty, and you can read his takes on retro video games at Retro XP.
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