For Clevelanders who follow politics, today’s the aftermath of a major conflict.
Nearly the entire political and business establishment lined up to support Issue 7, the alcohol and cigarettes tax for stadium renovations. A scrappy coalition of activists opposed it with a ferocity that had nothing to do with spending 7 1/2 more cents on a six-pack of beer.
The final score: Issue 7 passed, 56 percent to 44 percent. What’s that mean, beyond the price of a cigarette pack or a scoreboard? A lot. Here are a few keys to understanding the vote.
It’s a sports town. Someone recently wrote that losing the Browns in 1995 wounded Cleveland as badly as losing the Dodgers did Brooklyn. It’s true. For many Clevelanders, the sports teams make up a huge part of the city’s identity.
The major leagues drive hard bargains with cities. The public cost of owning Progressive Field, Quicken Loans Arena and FirstEnergy Stadium is going above $1 billion with this vote – to $1.2 billion from 1990 through 2035, Cleveland Magazine has calculated. Yet, we learned yesterday, a majority in Cuyahoga County is willing to pay it.
The frugal populists revolt. A lot of people in Cuyahoga County – about 44 percent of people, it turns out – think it’s unfair, outrageous, and illegitimate to spend tax money to build and renovate sports stadiums. Issue 7 gave a new generation a chance to join a rematch of the May 1990 vote on Gateway, which realigned local politics in ways that still resonate.
Many sin tax opponents weren’t just resisting the great expense of being a sports team’s landlord. They were frugal populists who treated Issue 7 as a vote on the entire Cleveland political system, especially the alliance of government and business.
The best way to understand most Cleveland political debates isn’t party politics. It’s, do you believe in spending tax money on “public-private partnerships” that draw people and business downtown? Or do you thinks that’s corporate welfare, giveaway of money better spent on other needs? That debate has run through our politics for decades, from tax abatement in the ’80s through Gateway in 1990 through the convention center debate in 2007, to the sin tax rematch yesterday. (For more on this great divide, check out my commentary after George Voinovich retired – the conflict traces back at least to his years as mayor.)
Populism declines in City Hall. Plenty of voters may have wanted to pressure the sports teams for a better deal, but almost no politicians did. Some were pragmatic, believing the city and county had little leverage to reopen lease negotiations midway through a binding contract. For instance, Mayor Frank Jackson voted against the stadium leases in the ’90s as a city council member, but felt bound to honor them as mayor.
Still, the near-unanimous support for Issue 7 among city and county officials reflects a political realignment. There aren’t many Dennis Kucinich-style leaders, ready to fight big business, in Cleveland politics anymore.
Money talks. Of course money affects elections. And the business-political alliance will always outspend the frugal populists. Issue 7 supporters spent more than $1 million, mostly from the teams, to get their message out. Polls suggest that helped sway undecided voters and turn the election around. Opponents had much less to spend.
What now? The debate about public stadium spending isn’t over. For one thing, the city and county have no agreement on how to split up the new sin tax money. I asked city council president Kevin Kelley about that on WCPN this morning, and he couldn’t say how it’ll be resolved.
The city and teams would like an even three-way split of the funds. But the county council isn’t inclined to do that. It may keep control of the sin tax funds and force the city to come to it, hat in hand, every time FirstEnergy Stadium needs repairs. Or, the city and county may negotiate a cooperative agreement on how to split the money, maybe with some new committee deciding how to set priorities.
I wouldn’t even be terribly surprised to see the Gateway board take over FirstEnergy Stadium. Gateway already has a system for comparing and prioritizing repairs at Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena. So why not bring the football stadium under that system, once the funding source is the same?
Whoever’s in charge of spending the stadium tax money will have an important job. They’ll have to manage the teams’ renovation requests so the costs don’t exceed the projected $260 million tax revenue. If the anti-sin tax crowd wants to stay engaged, it has plenty to watch and probe.