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Opinion: How would a major league stadium involve Utah taxpayers?

The governor and some lawmakers oppose public subsidies, but could financing be done in a way that protects taxpayers?

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A rendering depicts what a new Major League Baseball stadium could look like in the Power District in Salt Lake City.

Renderings released April 12, 2023, depict what a new Major League Baseball stadium could look like in the Power District located on North Temple in Salt Lake City, according to Big League Utah, a group described as a “broad community coalition led by the Miller family.

Big League Utah

Baseball fever seems to be taking hold of Utah. It’s hard not to get swept up in it.

You want bipartisanship? How about both Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore and Democratic Minority Leader Luz Escamilla donning baseball hats on the Senate floor in support of a resolution welcoming the big leagues to Utah. 

“I think this is going to be a state jewel,” Escamilla said. “It’s going to be more than just something for the west side of Salt Lake City.” 

You want exposure? A major league team in Utah would be a strong selling point for any business looking to relocate or expand. 

But it isn’t likely to come cheap. 

Las Vegas could serve as a guide. The Nevada Legislature last year passed legislation committing up to $380 million in public financing to help build a stadium that is expected to cost $1.5 billion.

And a baseball stadium may not be the only sports venue in Utah taxpayers’ future. Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith’s Smith Entertainment Group has formally asked the National Hockey League for an expansion franchise in Utah. Because the Delta Center is not designed with sightlines that can ideally accommodate hockey, a new arena presumably would be built.

Would that involve taxpayers, too? It’s hard to know at this point. 

At the moment, opposition is tiny, but not insignificant. Only three state senators voted against the baseball resolution. One of them was Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine.

“Like most Americans, I love baseball and support efforts to bring an MLB team to Utah,” he told me in a text message. “I do not support tax dollars being used for this purpose.”

Last spring, when officials from the Larry H. Miller Company and others formed Big League Utah and announced plans to acquire a team, Gov. Spencer Cox expressed a similar opinion.

“I’m on the record saying that I don’t think taxpayers should subsidize billionaires,” KSL quoted him saying. “I don’t think that’s strong economic policy. I don’t think that’s good for taxpayers, especially when most of the benefits of that (go) directly to the franchise owners.”

But the governor also has expressed his support for the drive to acquire a team. Would he be opposed to every type of public funding? If tax dollars are used, how would this happen?

At a meeting with reporters in the state Senate president’s office last week, state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, who sponsored the resolution welcoming the big leagues to Utah, said lawmakers were looking at various funding mechanisms being used for stadiums nationwide. 

“We found some very good models that protect taxpayers to make sure that we’re not putting taxpayer money at risk,” he said. He later told me it’s too soon to talk about specifics.

Senate President Stuart Adams reassured Utahns their investment would be paid back in spades. 

“There’s going to be an economic kick from this,” he said. “There’ll be more property tax, There’ll be all kinds of sales tax revenue, but it will have to sustain itself, I think that’s pretty evident. And I think it will do more than sustain itself. It will raise the entire area.”

The stadium is planned for a 100-acre site along North Temple, between the airport and downtown. It is near the Fairpark neighborhood, which has been struggling economically. Adams said the ballpark, which presumably would be part of a larger commercial and residential project, would “breathe life” into the area.

A common method of funding construction projects is to use tax increment financing. A public entity loans money that is paid off by the extra property tax money the project generates after completion. Generally, this does not require a tax increase. Others have talked about setting up a ballpark authority, with its own board, to govern how tax money is used. The term “public-private partnership” is heard a lot on Capitol Hill.

The legislative resolution said a big league team would enhance the state culturally and economically. It’s hard to argue against that, particularly for a metro area and state in the far West struggling for national recognition.

For the most part, Utahns seem thrilled with the idea. An opinion poll conducted for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics last spring found 81% of Utahns in favor of efforts to bring a big league team to the state.

As this plays out, the political struggle over if, and how, taxpayers get involved will be interesting to watch.