What Kansas City stadium tax defeat says about teams, their subsidies and Jackson County voters

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A rendering of the Royals' proposed downtown ballpark. | image submitted

The Royals and the Chiefs had everything.

Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce — fresh off of a Super Bowl victory — endorsed a “yes” vote in ads airing on TV and on YouTube. Endorsements rolled in from the city’s top political players: Mayor Quinton Lucas (belatedly), U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and nearly every union in town.

All in all, the teams spent $3 million trying to convince voters a 40-year sales tax for a downtown ballpark would mean a win for everybody.

From a thorny stadium location and murky financial details to a community benefits agreement that drew criticism from workers groups and economists, the weeks leading up to the vote brought gaffe after gaffe, all in the public eye.

Jackson County voters couldn’t be convinced. With turnout higher than a typical April election and an unprecedented level of early votingthey shot the sales tax down by a 16-point margin.

The theories on what cursed the pitch to voters will pile up like Royals losses this summer, but some reasons already stick out.

‘No’ votes are easier than ‘yes’ votes

Any number of opposition groups will claim that the sales tax failed because of one key reason or another.

But a lot has to go wrong for a referendum to lose by such a wide margin.

In many ways, the stadium sales tax question was so complicated that it was doomed from the start, said Debra Leiter, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“It wasn’t just a three-eighths cent sales tax,” she said. “It came with a load of baggage.”

If a voter supported funding the Chiefs but not the Royals, they were a “no” vote. If they wanted a downtown ballpark but not in the Crossroads, they were a “no” vote. If they wanted a downtown ballpark in the Crossroads but with a stronger community benefits agreement, they were a “no” vote.

That made it easy to convince voters that the stadium tax was a bad deal.

“The coalition with a small but clear message and less funding ended up winning,” Leiter said. “It’s a good reminder that it’s not just how much you spend. The message that you’re selling really can influence what voters are going to end up doing.”

KC Tenants, the citywide tenants union, managed to hone its message in a way that resonated with voters. The group expanded its reach into eastern Jackson County ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

“People out here have a real bullshit detector,” said Keith Sadler, a leader with KC Tenants who lives in Blue Springs. “People can really hear when the message keeps changing.”

Big price tag, shrinking team leverage for a stadium tax

Part of the problem for some voters rested in the price tag and an awareness that taxpayers have become increasingly weary of subsidizing the stadiums of big-money sports teams.

For a referendum like Question 1, the teams would only want to win by a narrow margin, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economics professor at Smith College. Winning by a big margin, he said, would signal that they could have squeezed more tax dollars out of a deal.

“​​If they were to win 60%,” he said, “it means that they haven’t asked for as much as they could have asked for.”

At the same time, teams are losing the sway they once enjoyed with voters and the leverage to score better terms with taxpayers.

Patrick Tuohey, a senior fellow at the anti-tax Show-Me Institute, said teams will need to reevaluate their approach going forward. Public sentiment is shifting, he said, and that will require a new approach from sports teams nationwide seeking public stadium subsidies.

He pointed to Virginia, where the Democratic-controlled legislature last month declined to include any state dollars for an arena that would bring the region’s hockey and basketball teams from Washington, D.C., into Virginia. The package was a top priority of the state’s Republican governor.

It will be difficult for teams looking to make a move to find a friendly destination that’s willing to pay, Zimbalist said.

“(Teams) claim they’re going to be wonderful economic engines — they’re not,” Zimbalist said. “More and more cities are realizing that.”

In Jackson County, anger about 2023’s property tax assessments is still swirling, said Mark Jones, the chairman of the county GOP.

“We’re just not through with the 2023 property tax debacle,” Jones said. “People are still in their appeal process. People have absolutely no appetite for anything to increase taxes.”

A fear-based approach — that the Royals might leave Kansas City for a place like Salt Lake City that’s trying to seduce teams with big subsidies — won’t work for Republicans in Jackson County, Jones said.

“Don’t patronize us with threats,” he said.

What the teams will have to do differently next time to pass a stadium tax

Team owners Clark Hunt and John Sherman will have to go back to the drawing board, Tuohey said.

“The Chiefs and Royals can come back and demonstrate that they’ve listened, they’ve learned a lesson,” he said. “Jackson County doesn’t want the teams to leave. I don’t think the teams will want to leave.”

The cost of moving a team from city to city is high. When Rams owner Stan Kroenke decided to move the football team from St. Louis to Los Angeles, he ultimately had to agree to a settlement of $790 million. That’s real money even for an NFL owner.

When teams inevitably ask for tax money again, they’ll need a better rollout. And elected officials will need to get on the same page, Leiter said, pointing to Jackson County Executive Frank White’s opposition to the measure and Mayor Lucas’ eleventh-hour endorsement.

Tuohey said the Royals and Chiefs may need to revisit the economic argument for stadium subsidies.

“(Teams have) been able to make claims of economic benefit in the past,” he said. “They’ve been able to threaten to leave. That has worked in the past. I think that may not work anymore.”

Translating this momentum into future political movements

The vote saw left-leaning KC Tenants campaigning on the same side as the libertarian Show-Me Institute and some Republicans in eastern Jackson County.

But for other issues, it’s unlikely that Kansas City will see these groups work together again, Leiter said.

Many Jackson County voters, left and right, share a common sentiment: it’s not the time to foot the bill for those who don’t really need the help.

“It’s a unique movement that’s anti-elite,” Leiter said. “There is a lot of skepticism and people are skeptical of how the government is spending money.”

That’s what organizers and political parties are hoping to translate into future elections.

“I know we’re not going to get the entire coalition,” Jones said. “But as much of this coalition as we can that backs this populism, let’s translate that into the fall. … We’re tired of paying the entire bill.”

The KC Tenants group senses that momentum, as well, and is looking at expanding its reach into other parts of eastern Jackson County by propping up a new union in Independence.

The way voters rallied in opposition points to the importance of participating in local politics, Tuohey said.

“You don’t have to be a liberal or conservative to know that the potholes are making you crazy or that you want your trash to be picked up,” he said. “Municipal politics is the least beholden to these broad, vague national things. It’s really just that people want a return on their investment.”

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