A senior Albany lawmaker disclosed last week that he wants to investigate a new taxpayer-funded deal that will give state officials the right to use a luxury box at the Buffalo Bills’ stadium. Assemblyman James Brennan, D-Brooklyn, chairman of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, was quoted by The New York Times as saying “there’s an issue about the appropriateness of state officials getting free tickets to sporting events.”

But the much bigger issue here is the appropriateness of spending taxpayer capital dollars to subsidize a professional sports team — even without complimentary premium seating for politicians.

In the case of the Bills, the Cuomo’s administration recently agreed to provide the NFL franchise with a sweet $124 million over the next 10 years, starting with $54 million of stadium improvements appropriated in the newly enacted state budget.

The Buffalo deal could be a case study in New York’s excessive and questionable use of public resources to benefit all sorts of private businesses, invariably under the catch-all heading of “economic development.” Over the past 10 years, the state’s outstanding bonded indebtedness in this category alone has more than doubled, from $1.4 billion to $3.9 billion. And the newly enacted budget appropriates $403 million in new capital spending on economic development projects, including the Bills’ stadium.

Would anyone other than Bills fans notice the difference if the team packed up and left New York? It’s difficult to answer that question, since the state doesn’t rigorously apply standard objective performance measures to such projects.

We do know this much: the state agreed in 1998 to $63 million in stadium upgrades designed to keep the Bills in Buffalo for 15 years. And 15 years later, they’re back.

Courtesy of taxpayers, Bills ticketholders will soon be able to appreciate added amenities at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which is already owned by the taxpayers of Erie County. The improvements will include an expanded team store, selling gear on which the team collects a nice royalty.

Any sales tax this generated by these purchases will be more than offset by millions of dollars in annual operating subsidies from taxpayers — even though the Bills are among the 10 most profitable franchises in the National Football League, according to Forbes magazine.

You would think that this kind of corporate welfare would be ruled out under New York’s constitutional ban on gifts or loans of state money “to or in aid of any private corporation or association, or private undertaking.” However, in a line of decisions over the years, the state Court of Appeals has decided that the New York Constitution doesn’t mean what it says.

To be fair, the Bills — and their fans — are hardly alone in feeling entitled to government support. Over the past 20 years or so, the state has spent tens of millions of dollars, directly or indirectly, to subsidize sports complexes for everything from minor league soccer teams to the New York Yankees. Some other states have been even more extravagant.

On the other hand, at least five NFL teams have built their own stadiums — including the New England Patriots. The Pats are at least as beloved in their region as the Bills are in western New York, but they couldn’t squeeze a stadium subsidy out of Massachusetts. Nor could the even more beloved Boston Red Sox, whose owners are reaping big profits from a privately financed renovation of Fenway.

If we’re going to be stuck with the Buffalo deal, maybe the state should keep the luxury box — and, over the next 30 years, hold drawings that would give randomly selected New York taxpayers a chance to see what their bucks are paying for.

We can only hope the Bills put a better “product” on the field in the meantime.

E.J. McMahon is a senior fellow and Michael Wright is a senior policy analyst at the Empire Center.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is a senior fellow at the Empire Center.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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