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Lessons of Park Barrel Politics 101

San Diego: World Series fever fuels support for a new stadium, despite the fiscal consequences.

October 18, 1998|PETER NAVARRO | Peter Navarro is a professor of economics at the Graduate School of Management, UC Irvine, and the author of "San Diego Confidential" (QT Press, 1998). He ran for mayor of San Diego in 1992

The San Diego Padres are facing the New York Yankees in the first World Series with a grand prize of almost a quarter of a billion dollars in ballpark subsidies.

The ballpark is a proposed 42,000-seat downtown baseball stadium. Padres owner John Moores insists that San Diego taxpayers must largely finance it or else the Padres will leave town. The City Council has put a $225-million bond issue on the November ballot. In ordinary times, fiscally conservative San Diegans most assuredly would vote it down. But with the Padres now in the Series, the bond measure is building support--even though it is likely to cripple the city's finances.

The problem is that the debt service on the bond is supposed to be covered mostly by increased tax revenues generated by the project. But city officials have made the ludicrous assumption that such revenues will grow by at least 8% a year. This would be a fantasy even in economic boom times, much less in the recessionary era we may be sliding into. Because of these suspect assumptions, the ballpark deal has been called into question by a county grand jury, while Standard & Poor's has downgraded the city's financial prospects from "stable" to "negative." Nonetheless, polls show this highly risky measure has a fair chance of winning, and the reasons offer a modern lesson in "Park Barrel Politics."

* Buy the votes. The pro-ballpark forces are outspending the opposition by more than 700 to one. More than $2 million will be spent to run a targeted mailing program and more than 1,000 television spots.

* Damn lies and statistics. To statistically buttress their marketing campaign, proponents have financed a study that purports to illustrate the benefits of the ballpark. Naturally, the study overstates the benefits and fails to address the fiscal risks involved.

* A winning coalition. It's not just downtown developers, parking concessionaires, hotel owners and restaurateurs who love the taxpayer subsidies that will boost their businesses. Organized labor has backed the deal, including a pledge to use pension fund money to purchase bonds.

* Media meltdown. San Diego's major newspaper has been a rabid supporter of the project, bombarding voters with a steady stream of pro-ballpark editorials and news stories. Meanwhile, radio mergers have divided San Diego between the station that broadcasts the Padres and is a natural ballpark partisan and a group of stations that wants to grab the Padres contract, thereby muzzling or converting normally outspoken talk show hosts.

* Silence the opposition. The one major voice that might have helped quash the deal--the San Diego Taxpayer's Assn.--has been effectively silenced. With most of its funding coming from the same development interests that support the park, the association's director endorsed the measure.

* All-Star blackmail. Major league officials have promised that if San Diego builds the park, the 2004 All-Star game will come.

The ballpark vote looks to be far closer than common fiscal sense dictates. Indeed, the deciding factor may be whether the Padres win the World Series. But the fiscal hangover will last long after the cheers have died.

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