Efforts to keep the Chicago Cubs in Mesa present the first opportunity to see if Arizona elected officials were paying attention to the Arizona Supreme Court decision striking down government subsidies to individual businesses. A city can construct and own a baseball stadium. (We’ll leave aside for now the question of whether that’s good public policy.) However, the funds being considered by the Legislature are problematic: a new tax on all tickets to Cactus League spring training games for the benefit of the Cubs and an increase to the already hefty car rental tax. Adopting these taxes to benefit a single sports franchise may constitute an illegal special law under the Arizona Constitution. The proposed bill would confer to a sports authority such unbounded power that it may be an improper delegation of legislative authority, which also presents constitutional problems.
The potential deal between Mesa, which will own the facility, and the Cubs also raises serious issues. Under the proposed deal, the Cubs reap all of the financial benefits and have to do little more than show up. Under the CityNorth decision, the beneficiary of a government incentive must produce roughly comparable direct, tangible benefits. The best way to achieve this is fair market rent, which the Cubs are apparently unwilling to pay. A deal probably could be constructed that complies with the constitution, but it will require the Cubs to make far greater commitments than they have appeared willing to do.
Any baseball fan would want to have the Cubs here. And certainly the Cactus League is a valuable asset. But at some point, incentives become illegal subsidies, and taxpayers are asked to do too much. We hope our elected officials will heed the wisdom of the Arizona Supreme Court in the CityNorth decision and honor their constitutional limits.
Clint Bolick is director of the Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.
Goldwater Institute: Arizona Supreme Court Strikes Down Future Taxpayer Subsidies
Arizona Republic: Questions, answers on Mesa-Cubs deal