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

You may also like

The Numbers Debunk Cuomo’s SALT Gripes

For the better part of three years now, Gov. Cuomo has been pounding SALT — the federal income-tax deduction for state and local taxes. Read More

Washington shouldn’t fund NY’s “normal” budgets

With the coronavirus lockdown continuing to erode tax revenues, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has turned up the volume on his demands for a federal bailout of the New York state budget. In a weekend briefing, the governor repeated his estimate that the Empire State will need help closing a deficit of $10 billion to $15 billion. “I don’t have any funding to do what I normally do,” he said. Read More

Blame Cuomo for New York’s Medicaid crisis

When it comes to New York’s latest Medicaid mess, the buck stops with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Read More

Cuomo’s Plate Spinning

Governor Cuomo’s license plate design contest was a PR ploy masking a nickel-and-dime revenue raiser. Read More

Cuomo’s incredible wind-power pander

New York's offshore wind project will demand massive subsidies—ultimately billed to ratepayers. Read More

How Cuomo is cooking New York’s books

When lawmakers in Albany passed the state budget last spring, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared it “both timely and fiscally responsible.” Timely was true enough. But fiscally responsible? Not so much. Read More

Green Monster Could Eat NY

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he wanted New York to adopt a limit on greenhouse gas emissions that’s “the most aggressive goal in the country.” Unfortunately for New Yorkers, state lawmakers took him at his word. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act now awaiting his signature vastly expands the state’s power to regulate every corner of New York’s economy in pursuit of lower emissions. Yet sponsors didn’t even bother to estimate its fiscal and economic impacts before rushing it through. Read More

Cuomo’s SALT Flop

By midnight Monday, more than 9 million New Yorkers will have filed their income tax returns for 2018. And most will then have cause to wonder what the Great New York SALT Panic of 2018 was all about. Read More

Subscribe

Sign up to receive updates about Empire Center research, news and events in your email.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Empire Center for Public Policy
30 South Pearl St.
Suite 1210
Albany, NY 12207

Phone: 518-434-3100
Fax: 518-434-3130
E-Mail: info@empirecenter.org

About

The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.