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Tax bill would bar governments from issuing bonds for stadium projects

By BEN NUCKOLS
AP Sports Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Oakland Raiders decided to move to Las Vegas largely because Clark County, Nevada, agreed to finance a new stadium with $750 million worth of tax-exempt bonds. Now, that tax exemption could be going away, leaving the county on the hook for even more money.

The GOP tax reform bill released last week would prohibit state and local governments from issuing tax-exempt bonds for stadium construction, a common feature of stadium deals over the past two decades. It’s one of a few reforms in the bill that would affect the world of sports.

Pledges to get rid of stadium subsidies have long been popular in Washington among members of both major parties. Former president Barack Obama’s 2015 budget sought to do away with the current tax exemption for stadium bonds. President Donald Trump asked in a tweet last month why the NFL was getting “massive tax breaks” amid the controversy over players kneeling during the national anthem.

“Change tax law!” Trump tweeted. And Congress apparently listened.

“It’s good policy,” said Ted Gayer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the lead author of a study on stadium subsidies. “It’s always been kind of a no-brainer politically and, I think, economically.”

The Brookings study, released last year, found that the federal government has put $3.2 billion worth of subsidies into stadium construction since 2000. During that stretch, 36 stadiums were built or renovated, in part with the use of tax-exempt bonds. The Raiders’ stadium would get a $120 million tax break if the law isn’t changed, according to the Brookings analysis.

Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, cited those figures when they introduced a bill earlier this year to end the subsidies. Rep. Steve Russell, an Oklahoma Republican, introduced a similar bill in the House.

“Using billions of taxpayer dollars for the subsidization of private stadiums when we have real infrastructure needs in our country is not a good way to prioritize a limited amount of funds,” Lankford said. “Tax reform could be a unique opportunity to enact this into law. I’m pleased this idea is gaining momentum.”

The NFL argues that communities benefit from stadiums because they create jobs and spur economic development, but many economists say cities never recoup their investments and that the financing deals amount to handouts for wealthy team owners. A new stadium can cause the value of a professional franchise to skyrocket.

“We’ve always believed the construction of new stadiums and renovations of existing stadiums are economic drivers in local communities,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “If the idea is to promote economic growth, this would be a step backwards.”

Getting rid of the tax exemption would have almost no effect on federal revenue, bringing in $200 million over 10 years, according to the bill.

Rep. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat and a proponent of the stadium deal, said the bill would harm her district, which includes Las Vegas.

“Eliminating the tax exemption for stadiums could cost Clark County more money to build projects that are already underway,” Titus said in a statement. “This is an attack on local governments that will take money away from our communities and hamper infrastructure nationwide.”

The proposed elimination could end up harming many of the NFL owners who threw their support behind Trump in the latest presidential election. The president is now pinning his hopes on having tax reform be one of his biggest legislative accomplishments.

Dan Snyder, owner of the Redskins, is one of several owners who gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, and he’s looking for a site for a new stadium. A Redskins spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Even if the bill becomes law, teams will still find ways to build stadiums with public money, Gayer said.

“The overwhelming amount of the subsidy comes at the local level, not at the federal level,” he said. “What’s driving that is, if you’re Las Vegas and you want a team, you can’t just create a football team. You have to entice a team. There’s a fixed supply … and that creates these bidding wars.”

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