There are many things in Georgia that we don’t have enough money to pay for, according to our elected leadership.
Public education? Over the past nine years, the state has cut formula funding to local school systems by a combined amount of roughly $5.7 billion.
Health care? The governor’s office recently ordered spending reductions in Medicaid for the current fiscal year and next year as well. Gov. Nathan Deal says Georgia will not expand its Medicaid coverage as part of Obamacare because he contends the state can’t afford it.
Roads and highways? The state is so hard up for money that Deal and other top officials implored voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax this summer to raise funds for road construction and maintenance (most voters turned it down).
Obviously, there’s not enough money to pay for basic services like roads, schools and medical care.
What do we have money for? As it turns out, we have $300 million that the legislature approved two years ago as the proceeds from a hotel-motel tax in Atlanta. That tax money is going to be spent on a new stadium with a retractable roof for Arthur Blank and the NFL franchise he owns, the Atlanta Falcons.
Representatives of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which runs the Georgia Dome and will tear that structure down after building the new stadium, are negotiating with Falcons’ officials on the wording of an agreement to build the facility.
The agreement could be finalized by the authority’s board of directors by as early as the end of October.
The state’s commitment to use $300 million for a new football stadium was put in place in March and April 2010, when the legislature adopted a bill that imposed the 7 percent hotel-motel tax starting in 2020. That was also when Georgia was in the grip of a great recession that squeezed $3 billion out of the state budget and forced many school systems to keep their doors open less than the mandated 180 days a year.
Critics of the deal have questioned the wisdom of spending that kind of tax money to build a stadium when so much has been cut from education and health care. Questions have also been raised about using so much tax revenues to benefit a football team owner, Blank, who is already one of the richest men in America from the money he made running Home Depot with Bernie Marcus.
One of those stadium critics is state Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek. Dudgeon was not in the General Assembly when the House voted to pass the stadium tax in 2010 — he was a member of the Forsyth County school board preparing to run for his first term as a lawmaker.
In this year’s legislative session, Dudgeon introduced a resolution that said “taxpayers of this state are concerned about the best possible use of their hard-earned tax dollars” and urged the GWCCA not to give the Falcons any property or stadium rights at a price that was “below fair market value.”
Using tax money to build a new football stadium, he argues, is “the wrong message to send” when state troopers and other state government employees haven’t had a decent pay raise in several years.
“We at the state are saying, ‘We’re broke, we can only pay for 170 days of school,’ and then we say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ll build this new stadium,’” Dudgeon said.
While he acknowledged that the $300 million already allocated for the stadium is a “done deal” that can’t be reversed, Dudgeon said he will introduce legislation next year to block any attempts to add more dollars to the World Congress Center Authority’s “Blank check.”
“They might need higher bonding authority for the World Congress Center or another source of funding,” Dudgeon said. “My intent would be not to add more taxpayer funds or bonding capacity.”
He added: “I think a majority of the public would be in agreement on that. I don’t think I’m on an island here.”
Dudgeon is not on an island. I don’t think a majority of Georgia’s taxpayers would support spending $300 million on a vanity stadium for a billionaire — but their elected representatives have put them in that position.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.