In the Mel Brooks play, The Producers, a planned swindle would only succeed if a joke of a Broadway play was a monumental flop. The play, Springtime for Hitler, ended up being a success against all reason. Right now the Arizona Legislature is planning a similar heist: the Decades Music Theme Park.
The Legislature has proposed a law to create a special attraction district in Eloy that would only include the Decades park and give it quasi-governmental status. Why is this proposed law a scam? In essence, the law is designed to subsidize private companies that cannot raise the money or otherwise get financing without special government treatment. In this case, the special privilege is the ability to issue government bonds. The bill now being considered would allow the owners of Decades to issue $750 million in government bonds.
People who buy government bonds accept less interest than they would otherwise for two reasons. First, they don't have to pay federal income tax on the interest earned. Second, government bonds are backed by the ability of a government entity to tax its citizens, so they are generally safe investments.
In the case of the proposed theme park, the bonds will be financed by sales taxes paid only by park visitors. That means these bonds are really every bit as speculative as corporate bonds, because they are entirely dependent on the ability of a company to attract customers.
There are very likely to be good-faith buyers of these special attraction district bonds who will have every reason to think the bonds are as safe as school district bonds.
Then, if the park doesn't work out and goes out of business, widows, retirees and institutional investors could find their government-grade bonds worth pennies on the dollar at best. If this unfortunate scenario were to happen, disappointed investors would likely sue those responsible, including the state of Arizona. Even if theres no lawsuit, Arizona's bond ratings will suffer if the park goes belly-up. Future bond buyers, with no idea if they're really buying speculative corporate bonds or genuine government bonds, might avoid buying Arizona bonds all together.
Not only could Arizonans lose financially if policymakers ultimately approve this highly speculative project, we could lose in other ways. The private sector sets a pretty high bar for potential enterprises to pass in order to get funding. That doesn't mean there is always success when enterprises are privately funded, but it does mean the winners often win big. Who knows what kind of big winner this government-backed project might prevent from opening.
If a theme park comes to Arizona, it needs to stand on its own financial feet. The test any such proposal passes should come from the private sector school of hard work, not the political school of smooth talk.
Byron Schlomach is director of the Goldwater Institute Center for Economic Prosperity.