Stadium Lobbying Isolates Politicians from Reality

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Two recent polls show that there are different realities in Minnesota stadium politics:

At the capitol, Governor Pawlenty and many legislators have made stadium funding a top priority. Most legislators sincerely believe that a majority of their constituents support the stadium subsidies. Legislators of both parties are now proudly describing stadium funding, along with the bonding bill and eminent domain legislation as the main priorities they plan to accomplish this session.

Around Minnesota, people oppose using taxpayer money to pay for any professional sports stadium by more than two-to-one (65% - 30%, according to a May 11 poll for KSTP by SurveyUSA.) While more people thought the Twins needed a new stadium than the Vikings or Gophers, it was still only 35% of the public that thought they needed one (May 14 Star Tribune/Minnesota Poll). And, when asked about paying for it, 68% of the public opposed the use of public money, with 59% of them strongly opposed (Minnesota Poll.) Despite years of expensive advertising and PR campaigns on behalf of public subsidies, the voters remain strongly opposed.

Why is the "reality" at the capitol so far removed from the attitudes of the public? After a decade of intensive lobbying, PR efforts, and campaign contributions by team owners and their lobbyists, the Governor and legislative leaders have come to believe in a new reality.

These political leaders are living in a bubble in which they end up talking to lobbyists for the team owners and their allies more than their constituents.

Furthermore, these legislators believe the "astroturf" (phony "grassroots") lobbying campaign organized by highly-paid consultants and PR firms actually reflects public opinion.

These public officials are so confident they are doing what the public wants that they dismiss the two new polls as unbelievable. Politicians who are usually eager to do what polls show to be popular, reject these polls because they don't mesh with their "reality."

Legislators from greater Minnesota have been persuaded by the stadium lobby that the vast majority of their constituents support the subsidy bills because it is not their constituents that will be stuck with the taxes for a stadium, but people in other communities. Yet the KSTP/SurveyUSA poll shows that people outside of the metro area oppose the taxpayer subsidies just as people in the metro area do. It doesn't occur to these lawmakers that their constituents understand the unfairness of the tax and don't think their fellow citizens in Hennepin or Anoka county should be stuck with it either.

Likewise, the stadium lobby has persuaded many politicians that the dreaded stadium issue will go away if they give in and provide the subsidies demanded. These politicians don't realize that as soon as these stadiums are funded, new demands will crop up. They don't see the writing on the wall about the Timberwolves stadium wishes when team owner Glen Taylor tells the Star Tribune, "I was in politics... the last thing we need is [a Target Center funding debate] now. (emphasis added)"

In previous years, the Governor and legislators understood that these taxpayer subsidies were unpopular with the public, so public officials claimed that they did not consider stadiums to be a priority, only an option that would be nice to do. Now, Governor Pawlenty and legislative leaders have given up any pretense of that, and will freely admit that although the state won't be doing anything significant to address our education or healthcare or transportation needs this session, they want to make sure we fund at least two stadiums.

To the credit of MN voters, they have held fast to their principled opposition to stadium subsidies despite the expensive stadium PR campaigns. Nevertheless, the stadium lobby has shown that with enough money, they can persuade many sports fans that taxpayer subsidies are important, even though they are designed primarily to bring more money into team owners' pockets. Through their well-funded efforts, the stadium lobby has generated many calls and emails to legislators demanding action. And, using campaign contributions and a bus-load of lobbyists, they have made stadium subsidies not only an issue, but a priority, at the capitol.

John Marty