Sportin' Life

It seems as if it were only a few months ago that Harris County voters were being sold this wonderful deal that would accommodate Drayton McLane with a new baseball stadium and keep the Astros in town.

You may recall being told how this arrangement wouldn't cost you too many dollars -- unless you took in the games at the downtown ballpark or a newly renovated Astrodome, or rented a car, or for some reason checked in to a local hotel. You also may recall that artfully understated testimonial Bob Lanier delivered on behalf of Proposition One, the ballot initiative to allow the county to move ahead with building a stadium for McLane and renovating the Astrodome for the rodeo and the NFL.

"No property tax, no general sales tax, teams must sign 30-year leases. It's a good play," soft-shoed Lanier in a commercial that aired frequently prior to the passage of the November referendum.

Oh, right -- that was just a few months ago.
But even in those long ago days, George W. Bush had made it known that he was disinclined to allow the county to tap state sales tax revenue for the stadiums, one of the unwieldy array of no-pain funding sources that was supposed to make Proposition One such a good play for local taxpayers. The unspoken assumption was that the governor would eventually go along. But Bush has yet to come around, despite the entreaties of Enron's Ken Lay, a supporter of both the governor and his father and one of the architects of the stadium funding package.

In the meantime, Lanier has called on UH economist Barton Smith (who only last month distinguished himself by acknowledging that he had erroneously doubled the projected job losses in Houston if the minimum wage ordinance passed) to come up with numbers that can be used to sell Bush and other officials on the need for the state sales tax rebates.

And facing the possibility that a statewide stadium financing measure may not pass the Legislature or won't allow the level of funding needed for a new ballpark, a made-over Astrodome and a new basketball arena, Lanier and company have hurriedly drawn up another legislative play specifically for Houston, one that includes the option of asking voters to nick themselves for up to an additional half-cent in local sales taxes.

Not that the use of sales taxes was specifically prohibited by Proposition One -- the vague language only ruled out the use of property taxes for any of the stadium undertakings. But the clear promise, hammered home time and again, was that sports fans, out-of-towners and private interests would be footing the bill for the ballpark, the Astrodome reconstruction and a new arena.

Another source of funding was to be the Houston Sports Facilities Partnership, a group of mostly corporate investors being assembled by Ken Lay to purchase some $30 million in bonds for the new ballpark. Yet to date, no final list of the "partners" has been made public, despite promises by Lay to do so during the Proposition One campaign, nor is it clear if that private commitment is even attainable.

Suddenly, October's "good play" has become February's desperation heave.
But there's always been an undertone of desperation, of let's-throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks, about the whole enterprise, starting with the hasty placement of Proposition One on the November ballot to satisfy McLane's demand for immediate satisfaction. And it's apt to turn more desperate, given the various political pressures at work.

Bush, for instance, is being talked up as presidential material at the same time he's pushing his underwhelming package of property-tax reform measures. His plan includes that old, regressive reliable -- a half-cent increase in the state sales tax -- to offset his mandated cuts in local school property taxes. It's unlikely that Bush will want to muck up his big play by signing off on a measure for Harris County that could eventually add another half-cent, on top of the half-cent he wants, to the eight-and-a-quarter cents the state, the city and Metro already collect from Houstonians on each dollar.

Bush's Harris County constituency -- that is, suburban Republicans -- probably won't holler too loudly about paying extra sales taxes for education in return for a property tax cut, but they might not be so kindly disposed to paying more sales taxes for stadiums. They were, after all, the voters most likely to oppose Proposition One.

But if all else fails, there's that proposal to allow Sam Houston Race Park to conduct poker and blackjack games, with a cut of the proceeds being used to finance the stadium constructions. It's a dark horse, but what a beast of a beauty -- a measure that would simultaneously prop up the track controlled by forest products manufacturer Charles Hurwitz while helping to put more money in the pockets of Les Alexander, Hurwitz's fellow would-be casino operator.

Amazingly, a poll commissioned by Sam Houston Race Park found that 62 percent of Harris County respondents were all for allowing Sam Houston Race Park to open a "card parlor." Despite that figure -- and Barton Smith reportedly had nothing to do with the poll -- it's doubtful that Lanier will get that desperate. Moreover, it's a safe bet that Bush won't be caught dead with such legislation on his desk if he's actually thinking of running for the Republican presidential nomination.

Which sort of brings us back to the political imperative lending the most urgency to the stadium endeavors: the fact that Lanier is coming down to his last nine months in office.

Well, that's a fact as of this minute. But if I were one of the 647 people pondering a run to replace him, I'd think real hard before I put my house in West U on the market or started hitting up total strangers for money. With Lanier refusing to rule out the possibility of seeking another term if the city's terms limits ordinance were somehow overturned, it's not much of a stretch to imagine him humbly bowing to a "don't go, Mayor Bob" groundswell, even if it were one he and his cronies were privately manufacturing.

Of course, by doing so Lanier would risk being made out as a hypocrite, since he contributed money to the campaign that got the term limits ordinance on the ballot back in 1991.

But that was yesterday.


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