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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

State Won't Play Ovitz's Game of Political Football


SACRAMENTO — You've got to hand it to entertainment mogul Michael Ovitz. He really is a comedian. That line of his about how the taxpayers should pony up $225 million so he can run a football team at the L.A. Coliseum has them laughing out loud at the state Capitol.

Of course, some NFL owners around the country actually are taking Ovitz seriously. So maybe it wasn't meant as a joke.

In that case, state legislators have two other possible explanations:

* Ovitz was right when he recently told a New York Times interviewer: "I have 20 ideas a day and 19 of them are lousy." Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles), whose district encompasses the Coliseum, says of Ovitz's stadium renovation/financing scheme: "It's a little stupid."

* Ovitz knew he was losing to the team of billionaire businessman Eli Broad and developer Ed Roski in the contest for NFL approval to own the new franchise. So he threw up what's known in football as a Hail Mary. It didn't have a prayer, but was certain to excite NFL owners and perhaps persuade them to keep him in the game. It seems to have worked.

Regardless of Ovitz's strategy, however, his proposal for a $225-million public subsidy to build gigantic parking garages outside the Coliseum is a political nonstarter. In fact, even the Broad-Roski idea of $67.5 million for a smaller garage looks like a loser if it involves any possibility of putting taxpayers on the hook.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), asked the prospects of committing state money to return pro football to L.A., responded: "None. Right after they pay for the San Francisco football stadium and the West Sacramento baseball park. Give me a break!"

L.A. lawmakers aren't very sympathetic either. "Billionaires being subsidized? That's not acceptable," says Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco. "They're rich people. They ought to be imaginative enough to create a financing mechanism that doesn't rely on the public trough."


To put this in perspective, whichever group winds up owning the new team--and it could be a merger of both--will be heavily investing its own money. The Coliseum remodeling will cost at least $300 million. Then there'll be an NFL "franchise fee" paid to the other teams' owners, tentatively pegged at a minimum $600 million.

As Times sportswriter T.J. Simers pointed out Wednesday, the NFL pushes for public subsidies to reduce private construction costs so the new team owner will have more money for a franchise fee. In effect, taxpayers aren't just subsidizing their local team, they're subsidizing all the league's owners.

But here's more perspective--a catalog of other items $225 million could buy:

* An updated textbook for every high school student in California.

* Classroom computers for 675 high schools.

* Another week of classroom instruction for all schools.

* Preschool for 100,000 kids.

* A 50% tuition cut at all public universities.

Some other options:

* Place 3,000 cops on the street.

* Buy 500 buses for the MTA.

* Pay for two-thirds of the deferred maintenance on local roads across California.

* Reestablish local mental health care, including for street people.


L.A. legislators say the state may well be willing to help return pro football to the Coliseum. It just has to be sensible help. Nothing outrageous--like the $160 million Oakland paid out to recapture the Raiders from L.A.

It can't be politically embarrassing. Democrats can't seem to be opening the state vault for the new team owners just because they're generous bankrollers of the party.

But the state does own the Coliseum grounds and has landlord obligations. It could put up money to benefit all facilities at Exposition Park, including the museums. In fact, the state did authorize $10 million last year for underground parking; the feds are adding another $20 million. Federal taxpayers also have spent $100 million to make the Coliseum earthquake-proof.

There's historical value in keeping the Coliseum alive. But those Ovitz parking garages of three to five stories that would partially block out street views of the landmark stadium--plus a strange frosted glass rim around the top--make one think he ought to be paying the public $225 million.

Notes Wright: "We'd love to have an NFL team, but football has to fit the park--not the park fit football."

Most important, lawmakers say, if the state helps out with a loan, the team--not taxpayers--must be liable for repayment. "I don't envision any gift of public funds," says Sen. Kevin Murray, who also represents the Coliseum area.

After all, the NFL needs L.A. a lot more than L.A. needs the NFL. And the rest of the state doesn't need an L.A. team at all.

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