What is it with some Republican leaders and baseball? When it comes to America's national pastime, the party of lower taxes and less government leaves its principles in the dust.
The lead GOP pitcher for sports pork is President Bush, who launched a federally sponsored initiative last week to "revitalize" baseball. He will host kiddie T-ball games on the White House lawn, recruit Cabinet officials to help promote the sport, and throw out the first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers' new ballpark.
What's wrong with Bush's baseball fetish? Many of his supporters will argue that there's no harm in embracing athletic nostalgia and patriotic symbolism. But there's nothing romantic about raiding the public purse, which is what modern baseball increasingly is all about. I hate to be a spoilsport, but the president's latest crusade is a foul play that undermines the credibility of serious fiscal conservatism.
Take Miller Park, the $400 million stadium in Milwaukee where Bush will join baseball commissioner Bud Selig (the Brewers' former president) this Friday. The Brewers paid for less than one-fourth of the cost of stadium construction, and much of that came from subsidized government loans. Taxpayers voted overwhelmingly against public funding for the Brewers' new home. But they were forced to pick up the rest of the tab through a sales-tax hike, totaling $300 million, which was imposed upon them in 1995 by the state legislature.
Who championed that tax increase? Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the Republican welfare reformer who now heads Bush's Department of Health and Human Services. Thompson played hardball with local lawmakers, including state Sen. George Petak -- a Republican who cast the deciding vote that passed the stadium sales-tax hike. Soon after, Petak's district held an anti-tax revolt. They punished Petak by making him the first and only Wisconsin legislator ever recalled.
Prominent Republican officials from New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to Massachusetts Gov. Paul Celluci to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have joined tax-happy Democrats in drumming up public money to pay for new sports stadiums at nosebleed prices. Economist Raymond J. Keating of the Washington, D.C.-based Small Business Survival Committee estimates the total costs of building big league ballparks at $11.5 billion, with taxpayers picking up about 81 percent of the tab, or $9.3 billion.
It wasn't always this way. Keating writes: "Ballparks were once privately financed. Like other businesses, team owners bought the land and erected their own facilities. Before 1953, only one Major League Baseball club played in a government-funded stadium, and 75 percent of funding for ballparks came from private sources." Since then, only one big league ballpark has been built without taxpayer money, while 19 baseball stadiums were 100 percent taxpayer-funded. "Given current efforts," Keating predicts, "another $5 billion to $6 billion could be spent in the next few years on big league ballparks, with taxpayers easily on the hook for at least $3.5 billion to $4 billion."
It is bad enough that President Bush will lend his implicit endorsement to such baseball tax thievery when he proudly dons a satin jacket at Miller Park and lounges in a private luxury box built with public money. What's worse is the continued political dissonance Bush creates every time he speaks of "letting Americans keep more of their own money" and "sending tax dollars back to the people so government can't spend it."
As co-partner of the Texas Rangers, Bush championed a sales-tax increase and loan package worth $135 million for the construction of a new baseball stadium. Defenders of the deal -- which also gave a quasi-governmental sports authority the power to condemn private land for the new ballpark, shops and a hotel -- note that local residents approved the tax hike. But support came only after the Rangers threw a tantrum and threatened to leave. Moreover, Bush essentially bribed minorities into voting for the tax increase by campaigning personally at black churches and promising to reward them with racial set-aside construction contracts.
Yuck. With Republicans cheerleading for these crummy corporate welfare pay-offs, who needs big-spending Democrats?