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Posted: March 17, 2010 12:30 a.m.

More urgent needs than stadiums

We have a government in Georgia that quite literally is on the verge of collapse because of gaping deficits in the budgets for this year and next.

It is highly likely that you will see layoffs of thousands of state employees. We don’t have the money to do anything about our congested highways. Low-income families are going to be dropped from the Medicaid rolls because of revenue shortfalls.

That being the case, you may want to ask why legislators are voting for taxpayers to finance a new domed stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. You may also want to ask why Gov. Sonny Perdue wants to put $10 million in the state budget to pay for building the College Football Hall of Fame, which is relocating to Atlanta.

Let me make the necessary disclaimers up front. There are few things I enjoy more than watching a good football game. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in Bobby Dodd Stadium or Sanford Stadium on a fall afternoon for a college game, and I’ll cheer as loudly as anyone if the Falcons make the playoffs.

On the other hand, there are millions of Georgians who don’t much care for football. Why should they be forced to pay taxes to subsidize what is, at bottom, a very successful private enterprise?

The existing Georgia Dome is a $214 million facility that was financed through the issuance of bonds originally to have been paid off by 2020. It now looks as if the bonds will be retired by 2015 or 2017, which is a positive development.

The General Assembly is in the process of passing legislation, HB 903, that will impose a 7 percent hotel-motel tax in Atlanta for a 30-year period starting in 2021. The tax revenues would finance the construction of a new domed stadium.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Burkhalter, claims it is urgent that we replace the current facility with a new stadium to make sure the Atlanta Falcons don’t move to another city.

While legislators line up to see how quickly they can vote for this stadium tax, let me raise a few awkward questions.

The current Georgia Dome opened less than 18 years ago. It is one of the best sports venues in the country — good enough to have attracted several Super Bowls and Final Four basketball tournaments. We haven’t even finished paying for it yet. Why the rush to replace what is still a top-quality facility?

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, along with Bernie Marcus, built a successful retail business called Home Depot that enabled Blank to become a very wealthy man. Why should Georgia’s taxpayers foot the bill to provide a new domed stadium for Arthur Blank? If he feels that a new stadium is necessary to the Falcons’ continued success, why can’t he just pull out his checkbook and pay to have one built?

These same questions would apply to the College Football Hall of Fame. I am sure that thousands of fans like me will want to visit the facility when it opens in Atlanta in 2012. If enough people feel the way I do, it will be a financial success. If it turns out that there aren’t enough football fans to patronize it, it will fail.

Either way, why should Georgia taxpayers shell out $10 million to help build the Hall of Fame, as is proposed by Perdue in the state budget? The state has already squandered millions on other halls of fame in Macon and Augusta that did not succeed. Why take a chance on making that same mistake again?

I don’t intend for this column to be a diatribe against Arthur Blank. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I’m sure he’s a good man and he’s done a commendable job as the Falcons owner. I just don’t see why Georgia’s taxpayers should foot the bill to construct a new domed stadium for him.

We are in a very difficult time when state workers will probably be laid off, when state troopers and GBI agents are being furloughed, when crime labs are being closed due to budget constraints. Is it really the best use of our scarce tax funds to pay for domed stadiums and football museums?

I would think we’ve got more important priorities right now.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@capitolimpact.net.

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