These are not good times for fans of the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team, with poor play on the court and an uncertain future in the Northwest.
Team ownership foresees a drubbing even from voters should its demands for $300 million in tax funding for a grand new arena in Renton go to the ballot. Owner Clay Bennett expressed his skepticism in the Seattle media this week,
calling on legislators to show “leadership” and fund the arena deal outright.
While we haven’t paid much attention to the Sonics this season – and why would we, with courtside seats to a much better team playing at Paski Gymnasium – the Supes’ travails may be timely for those hoping to be spared the development of a NASCAR race track in Kitsap County.
The Washington Legislature finds itself faced with the politically untenable demand to fund not one, but two major sports facilities in the same session. Besides the Sonics hopes for a new arena in Renton (total price tag: upwards of $500 million), the International Speedway Corp. has sidled up to the public trough looking for some $180 million in tax funding toward a $360 million race track in South Kitsap.
Proponents will argue that these are not “either-or” propositions, that the projects can be funded through admission and use taxes and extensions of taxes already on the books for other purposes. So why not fund either – or both? But this sleight of hand should be dismissed out of hand. There is only so much cumulative tax burden that the public is willing to bear, regardless of whose pocket is being picked or where the money winds up. While Seattle has generally gotten its money’s worth out of the two sports palaces developed in the past dozen years, there is lingering resentment that the Mariners stadium was built over the objections of voters and disenchantment that it was followed immediately by a new football stadium. Adding a third – and perhaps a fourth – new sports facility to the landscape will only feed public pique.
As reported recently, the state already has more needs than it can properly fund. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s action plan for cleaning up Puget Sound seeks $220 million, which looks positively modest next to the combined handouts sought by the Sonics and NASCAR. Meanwhile, the state faces a lawsuit from public education interests that could radically change how Olympia funds our schools – and leave the Legislature scrambling to find more money still. Seattle continues to wrangle with viaduct replacement, much of which will be funded by the state. Any tax money devoted to lining the pockets of sports millionaires is – besides offensive – money that cannot be directed to these legitimate public purposes. It really is “either/or.”
The new Sonics ownership should be commended for making a good-faith effort to keep the team in the Northwest when the owners’ roots are on Oklahoma. But they should also be willing to put arena funding to a public vote. With 40 years’ of franchise history and general goodwill behind them, they might be surprised by the voters’ response. As to NASCAR, the fact that they couldn’t find a single sponsor for their funding amongst the West Sound delegation should tell them something: they’re not wanted here.
Still need to pick one? As they say in Vegas: take the Sonics and the points.