Rockefeller vows to keep stadium lobbyists at bay

Demands by NASCAR, the Sonics wasted the Legislature’s time, he says.

Sen. Phil Rockefeller has vowed to clear the state Capitol’s halls of corporate beggars looking for multi-million dollar handouts.

“I’m drawing a bead on this because I’ve seen it from close range,” the Bainbridge Democrat said, expressing frustration with high-profile proposals from professional sports enterprises seeking state subsidies during the just-completed legislative session.

Rockefeller said requests to support construction of a NASCAR racetrack in South Kitsap and a new arena for the Seattle SuperSonics amount to an “abuse” of taxpayer dollars, wasted the Legislature’s time and could violate the state Constitution.

“The Constitution is explicit: the state shall give no grants to private corporations,” he said. “That comes out of our populist tradition...when big railroad companies wanted subsidies. But there’s been some ‘finessing’ going on...”

Legislation proposed by Florida-based International Speedway Corp. would have authorized a new public speedway authority and an estimated $164 million in sales tax bonds to help build a NASCAR track near Bremerton National Airport.

New sales tax dollars generated by out-of-state race fans would then be used to pay back the bonds, the ISC said. The proposal, after long debate, died before the close of the session – thanks in part to Rockefeller’s efforts.

“It was a ‘finesse’ of (the law) they were trying,” he said. “But I think it’s an abuse.”

Rockefeller is in the early stages of crafting legislation to screen out such proposals before they reach the House and Senate.

“We need a more disciplined approach in dealing with these folks,” he said. “We need ground rules.”

The first-term senator plans to review past projects that used public funds to build large venues for the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Mariners, and to refurbish Key Arena for the Sonics a decade ago.

“We should look at these and make damn sure this process is not being abused and that we are at least breaking even,” he said.

Bainbridge Islander Chis Van Dyk, who founded the Citizens for More Important Things advocacy group, praised Rockefeller’s proposal.

“Sen. Rockefeller is absolutely right on this,” he said. “There’s no question that the Sonics and NASCAR have been major factors in Olympia, and I don’t think most people know how much work (it takes) to stop them. They bog down the legislative machine, and there’s not as much focus on more important things.”

Van Dyk’s group unsuccessfully fought the construction of both Safeco and Qwest fields. Over the last year, Van Dyk waged a “full-time” war against the NASCAR proposal and the Sonics’ failed request for $300 million in public funds for a new Renton arena.

Both Van Dyk and Rockefeller said they are amazed the Legislature held firm against the pressure generated from NASCAR and Sonics supporters and lobbyists.

“I had to deal with this every single day,” Rockefeller said. “Phone calls, messages, lobbyists talking to me. You know, they had 20 lobbyists – the best that money can buy – devoted to this.”

NASCAR proponents said the racetrack would generate nearly $4 billion in economic benefit to the state, create thousands of jobs and provide a popular community amenity.

But ISC dropped South Kitsap track project earlier this month after the Legislature significantly modified the funding proposal.

“These additional changes to the legislation were unacceptable, and would have had a significant negative impact on our financial model for the speedway development,” Grant Lynch, president of Great Western Sports, a subsidiary of the ISC, said in a statement at that time.

But Rock-efeller argues that the state is under no obligation to prop up a private corporation’s profit-driven endeavors.

“ISC built a $600 million track on Staten Island (New York) themselves,” he said. “Nothing is preventing this corporation from doing that in Kitsap.”

Rockefeller disputes many of the ISC’s claims about possible financial benefits for the county. Area hotels likely haven’t the capacity for the thousands of race fans drawn to the track. Instead, fans would likely sleep, dine and shop in King and Pierce counties, he said.

Such arguments were echoed by many of his constituents.

“In their own words, letters and emails, they ranged from skeptical to hostile,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, they said this was a bad idea for us.”

Rockefeller admits that the track had a vocal support base.

“The (ISC) got away with it because they have the glamour of professional sports,” he said. “People came to Olympia saying ‘we really love this’ and that ‘we need to be a world-class city.’ But people often don’t look at the finances or (the Senate’s) public responsibilities.”

Shifting public money from core state services toward grand-scale entertainment reminds Rockefeller of the dying days of ancient Rome.

“It’s our version of the Roman circus,” he said. “Look at the Colosseum. It’s so enormous. The Roman state went to enormous lengths to provide free entertainment.”

Rockefeller said he’d rather public funds go toward building new colleges, renovating schools and improving the state education system.

“There are great opportunities in these areas that I’d like to work on,” he said. “That’s where we have a clear public responsibility. That’s were I want to move forward...and get us out of this negative cloud over Kitsap County.”

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