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The state helps the rich get richer

POSTED: April 8, 2013 8:09 p.m.

Many school systems are furloughing teachers and can’t provide a 180-day school year for their students. Our elected leaders at the Capitol say they just don’t have the money to spend on public education.


Georgia’s highways are jam-packed with congestion and crumbling into disrepair. Our elected leaders say there just isn’t enough money to fix them.


Georgia has had to close crime labs and leave unfilled the positions of state troopers who patrol the highways. Our elected leaders say they just don’t have enough money to pay for them.


Our elected leaders had no trouble, however, finding $800 million in taxpayers’ money to build a stadium for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.


It’s all a matter of how you set your priorities.  For many of our elected officials, it’s more important to stroke the ego of a billionaire NFL franchise owner than to fix our roads or give our kids a decent education.


Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature, working in concert with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the city council, made it possible for Blank to get that very generous gift of tax money for his new stadium.


A series of independent polls have indicated that voters, by a large margin, do not support the idea of using Atlanta’s hotel-motel tax revenues to pay for a stadium that would benefit a private business.


With another election coming up in 2014, Deal and the lawmakers faced the unpleasant prospect of having to take a position on using that tax money to give the Falcons their new stadium.


Deal instead had the matter shifted to the Atlanta City Council and the city’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta. Those entities voted to issue $200 million in construction bonds paid off from the tax revenues. Over a 37-year period, the city is also committed to spend more than $600 million from those tax funds to maintain and repair the stadium.


“The city will use ‘only’ $200 million of scarce public money for construction of a facility to benefit the Falcons, up front,” said William Perry of Common Cause Georgia. “But another $680 million will ultimately go to the stadium for largely the same purposes — improving Arthur Blank’s equity value in the Falcons franchise.”


Sweet deals don’t get much sweeter than that.


It’s not as if Blank needs the money. Forbes magazine lists him among the 400 wealthiest Americans, with a net worth estimated at $1.6 billion. He could easily form a business syndicate capable of raising the money for a new stadium and keeping all the profits made from operating it.


Why should he bother? Blank essentially can back his limousine up to the state treasury, open the trunk and say, “Fill her up.” Our state and city leaders are happy to shovel in the tax dollars.


This is really a sordid giveaway of public funds in a state that has far more serious problems it should be addressing.


At least there were some public servants with the integrity to stand up against this taxpayers’ bonanza for a business magnate.


Rep. Mike Dudgeon (R-Johns Creek) persistently questioned the wisdom of the tax giveaway, writing in an op-ed column:


“It is very difficult to justify to our citizen, who is under enormous economic pressure himself, that there is no money for his kid’s teacher, none to widen the nightmare two-lane road he commutes on, none to fund a drug court to keep his young adult son out of jail for a first offense, but we can help fund a $1 billion stadium which primarily benefits a very lucrative business.”


Dudgeon added: “This kind of contrast makes people perceive that their tax money is not being used wisely and the system is rigged.”


When the final vote was taken by Invest Atlanta to issue the stadium bonds, Julian Bene was the only board member who voted against it.


“What do we get from this in terms of jobs?” Bene asked. “My perception is that we’re switching one stadium for another and that we don’t get an additional amenity for the city.”


Bene acknowledged that his vote in opposition was a “futile gesture, but someone has to do it.”


If only there were more people willing to stand up and do it.


Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@gareport.com.

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