Missouri Needs to Learn to Prioritize Spending
As first appearing in the Columbia Tribune:
In a couple of weeks’ time, incoming college freshmen will get their first taste of independence. But with independence comes responsibility, and right about now parents are giving familiar advice on how to handle life without a safety net: Study for class. Eat healthy. Spend smart (read: don’t spend your rent money on pizza and beer). Most freshmen will find their footing, eventually. Some never really do, especially when it comes to budgeting properly.
But unrepentant spendthrifts should not feel so bad, because many of Missouri’s top policy makers never figured out how to spend smart, either.
A handful of state and Saint Louis officials want to spend close to $400 million of public money on a new football stadium in downtown Saint Louis in an effort to keep the Rams from moving to Los Angeles. Not only is Saint Louis’s existing NFL stadium, the Edward Jones Dome, a mere 20 years old, but virtually every economist who has studied the issue has found that NFL stadiums are a bad place to invest public dollars. They do not generate economic growth, spur urban revitalization, or greatly increase tax revenue.
Unfortunately for Missouri residents, the way Saint Louis funds its football stadiums makes this much more than a local or regional issue. Statewide residents already covered half the cost of Saint Louis’s Edward Jones Dome. In fact, the state is still paying $12 million annually on that stadium’s debt. One could be forgiven for thinking that Missouri taxpayers deserve a break from funding entertainment venues in Saint Louis City, especially when tangible economic benefits are so unlikely. But that’s not the case. Quite to the contrary, state taxpayers will be expected to cover more of the stadium costs than they did last time, with total state support topping $300 million—about three quarters of the total subsidy. That money will come straight from Missouri’s general revenue.
However, even as Missouri and the City of Saint Louis prepare to spend lavishly, yet again, on pro sports, every level of government claims it is broke. We are told how courthouses are crumbling. How highways are deteriorating. How the schools are underfunded. How the state parks have a $400 million maintenance backlog. How Missouri’s Amtrak routes need $32 million in upgrades to continue running. Even Saint Louis City officials claim that core departments like fire protection and police are short of cash.
When it comes to basic government services, there’s never any money in the budget. Residents instead have to vote on tax increases, or else. But when Saint Louis’s NFL status is threatened, hundreds of millions of dollars are suddenly available. As for a vote, that’s restricted to those who will vote “yes.” At the state level, it’s likely that the decision of the governor alone will be sufficient to authorize spending more than $300 million, and he is spearheading the stadium effort.
Right now, Missouri’s leaders sound a lot like college students calling their parents because they can’t afford groceries. And they’re making that call from a noisy bar in Cancun. It’s true—some people never learn to spend responsibly, whether they are freshmen or officials. Then again, most of the time, that’s because no one ever makes them.