The city of Sacramento has been trying in recent to secure a financing plan for a new arena that would keep the city’s NBA team, the Kings, in town, and taxpayer advocacy groups have tried to force a public vote on whether the city should devote hundreds of millions of dollars to such a project every step of the way.
The city city council approved the $477 million arena deal in May, but this time, the main group seeking a public referendum on the project won’t be able to challenge it, thanks to a procedure the council used to rubber stamp the funding. The council, according to the Sacramento Bee, passed the funding measure with a resolution that cannot be challenged by referendum, and so the plan will go forward without public challenge (via Field of Schemes):
Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork (STOP) determined that the City Council’s approval of the financing plan is not subject to voter referendum because of the form of joint-powers authority the city created to issue the revenue bonds backing the project, said Jim Cathcart, one of the leaders of STOP.
“It’s a big disappointment to us, needless to say,” Cathcart said. Getting the signatures to force a referendum “was going to be a slam dunk, and we got very, very excited.”
STOP has attracted scrutiny after previous referendum efforts because it reportedly took donations from Chris Hansen, a potential Kings buyer who wanted to move the team to Seattle. Still, more generally, rigging the process in a way that keeps voters from having a say in arena financing deals is a fairly common practice — the state of Minnesota specifically crafted its financing plan for a new Vikings stadium to avoid public referendum, and plenty of other cities have done the same. In other instances, opponents of such financing plans are shut out well before any potential referendum: last week in Cobb County, Georgia, proponents of a new Atlanta Braves stadium kept opponents from challenging it at a council meeting.
In some of these instances, including Cobb County and maybe even Sacramento, there already exists public support for these funding plans. But it’s clear why cities, states, lawmakers, and teams don’t want them subjected to public vote: introduce a referendum and you introduce debate. Introduce debate and you introduce the possibility of losing. So instead, they circumvent the public — even, sometimes, a public that is supportive — ensuring that the stadium gets funded but preventing the type of debate and discussion that could at the very least make these financing schemes smarter and less damaging to city budgets and services than they inevitably will be.