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Why Frank White was right to veto the stadium sales tax extension

The Chiefs and Royals haven’t said where exactly the money would go

An aerial view of Kauffman Stadium during the 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star game between the American and National Leagues at Kauffman Stadium on July 10, 2012, in Kansas City, Missouri.
An aerial view of Kauffman Stadium during the 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star game between the American and National Leagues at Kauffman Stadium on July 10, 2012, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by MLB via Getty Images

On Thursday, Jackson County Executive Frank White vetoed a proposal that would have put a vote to the public for an extension of the 3/8 cent sales tax on the April ballot. This sales tax would help pay for a proposed renovation of Arrowhead Stadium and a new downtown baseball stadium for the Royals. Just last week, the Chiefs and Royals pledged that they would remain in Jackson County should the ballot measure pass.

The politics math here is pretty simple. White wants more out of the Chiefs and Royals before voting in favor to send the ballot measure to the public. To override a veto, six out of the nine members of the County Legislature must vote in favor of the ordinance, and they only have four “yes” votes right now. The County Legislature must pass the ordinance by January 23 in order for the measure to go on the April ballot. Therefore, the Chiefs and Royals need to sweeten the deal to secure another two votes.

White’s reasoning for vetoing the ordinance is also pretty simple. For a proposed sales tax that would, in his words, “generate over $2 billion” from Jackson County residents, the Chiefs and Royals haven’t provided enough assurances and information.

White’s office lists ten unresolved issues behind the veto. Notably, White demands that:

  • The Chiefs and/or Royals bear the stadium demolition costs themselves;
  • The Chiefs and Royals pay their own costs for insurance and indemnification;
  • The Chiefs and Royals commit to keeping front offices and other training facilities in Jackson County;
  • The Chiefs and Royals sign enforceable community benefits agreements;
  • The Royals declare where they will be building the stadium;
  • The Chiefs provide detailed plans about Arrowhead renovations and a post-Kauffman Stadium world; and
  • The Chiefs and Royals commit to a dollar figure of private capital

There’s a lot of chatter online that White is “getting in the way” of the deal or that he’s carrying a personal grudge against the team or that he’s just standing in the way of the voters for his own gain and notoriety.

But here’s the thing: White is absolutely correct to veto this ordinance!

There are a few key reasons for this. The first is that White is the county executive, whose literal job—as vested in him by the voters of Jackson County—is to ensure that the county spends money wisely. Before sending a vote to the public, White is using his power to hold the teams’ feet to the fire to actually get details out of them. Imagine if you’re a parent and your teenager asked you for $20,000 to buy a car. It would be absurd to expect the parent to hand their kid a cashier’s check without any more information than that, and that’s the situation the Royals and Chiefs are putting Jackson County in.

The second reason is that $2 billion is a hell of a lot of money and that Jackson County better get something out of the deal. This is objectively correct. Consider: for $2 billion, Kansas City could construct an entire multi-station commuter rail line between Kansas City International and Union Station like Denver did. For $2 billion, Jackson County could construct a brand new Kansas City International East for kicks and giggles. Two billion United States dollars is a huge commitment, and it’s all coming from taxpayers.

And unfortunately for the Royals and the Chiefs, Jackson County will not see a return on investment for that money. This is not conjecture—a supermajority of economists think this is the case. A 2017 poll of economists found that only 4 percent of respondents thought that state and local subsidies would result in a positive return on investment.

This is backed up by plenty of studies. Specific to baseball and specific to the Royals, economist J.C. Bradbury published a paper in the Journal of Regional Science about the new Atlanta Braves stadium in Cobb County. The end of his abstract is not shocking: “Estimates do not identify increased commercial property values from the stadium development, which is consistent with past studies that find little to no positive impact on economic activity.”

It’s worth getting into an article in and of itself about how public money provided towards stadiums doesn’t provide any return value, but not today. Today, we just need to keep in mind that the Chiefs and Royals are owned by extraordinarily filthy rich individuals who could pay for the stadiums if they wanted to. We need to keep in mind that neither the Chiefs nor Royals have put together a concrete plan for what they would do with $2 billion in public money.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that White isn’t dismissing anything out of hand, even if there’s enough economic data in his back pocket that he can use to tell the teams to shove it. You want $2 billion, you better argue your case. The teams haven’t done a good job of doing so. It’s as simple as that.