This essay will not please Buffalo.
In the May 1 edition of The Daily Gazette under the headline “Cuomo administration looks to keep Bills in state,” came this quote from a resolution extending the state’s contract with a law firm charged with exploring ways of doing just that:
“It is imperative that the state and ESD [the Empire State Development Corporation] study and develop a plan to ensure the long-term viability of the franchise in Western New York.”
The Buffalo Bills play just seven home dates in suburban Orchard Park’s Ralph Wilson Stadium each NFL regular season. One of the team’s home games is played in Toronto. The stadium goes largely unused outside of those occasions.
In 1960, when the Buffalo Bills were first formed as part of the old American Football League, the city had a population of 532,759. Today, it’s 259,384. While the metropolitan area still has just over 1 million residents, that number has declined about 3 percent since 2000, continuing a long-term trend.
Still, this NFL team would appear to be perfectly capable of underwriting its own studies and future stadium arrangements. According to Forbes, the Bills franchise is the 42nd most lucrative in global sports, worth an estimated $870 million today, with revenues of $256 million in 2012, the most recent year for which that figure is available.
The state and Erie County committed $90 million to renovations for the stadium just last year. Yet, the aforementioned resolution goes on to say: “Because of the complexity of the transaction [i.e.: likely sale of the team] and specialized nature of professional stadium construction and lease arrangements, the advice and assistance of outside counsel is required.”
So, the state will pay — more likely, overpay — a private law firm to devise an innovative way for its taxpayers to have, in effect, their own pockets picked.
Already successful businesses don’t just do this themselves because they’re in the habit of making astute business decisions. Why do it yourself if you can get politicians, motivated by campaign contributions and an all-too-gullible public fearing the loss of “their” team, to do it for you? Why do it yourself when you can play communities off one another and get them to bid for the dubious privilege of assisting you?
Does this pattern look familiar? It should.
Race to the bottom
The Bills situation is a keen illustration of the whole concept of business development, state government style. It’s ultimately an inglorious race to the bottom. These incentives are growing almost exponentially and they are becoming more and more expensive.
On the other hand, try to find comprehensive analyses of how successful these schemes have been in terms of return on investment for state taxpayers. The few that exist are generally anecdotal, not rigorously scientific, in nature.
Both big business and the politicians reap real and secured benefits. The citizen taxpayer just gets to pay — either through higher taxes or a reduction in quality of life government services. Heads they win; tails we lose.
It’s not a new game. The state constitution enacted in 1894 and 1938 addressed it: “[The] money of the state shall not be given or loaned to or in aid of any private corporation or association, or private undertaking; nor shall the credit of the state be given or loaned to or in aid of any individual, or public or private corporation or association, or private undertaking.”
However, even this seemingly explicit prohibition has since been defeated through slick legal maneuvering that crafted a work-around through the back door of public authorities.
The result is a massive transfer of wealth from public to private coffers on the thin and usually unsupported premise that doing so represents either a short- or long-term net gain for the public.
Just as there is no evidence that having a professional sports franchise improves the overall economic fortunes of a host city or region, there is no evidence that this contest approach toward economic development does so either.
However, the problem and genius of it all is this: With everyone engaging in this rigged contest, how do you not? It’s the old game of pitting supplicants against one another, with those staging the contest the winners and those playing the game coming out considerably less fortunate.
One thing is for sure, however. While we’re distracted and obsessing over arguably less weighty issues, our pockets are definitely being picked.
John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.