Should the Kansas City Royals move to a downtown stadium? Should the taxpayers go along?

Jeff Fox
Jeff Fox

As a baseball fan and a taxpayer, I’m not wild about the idea of the Kansas City Royals walking away from Kauffman Stadium. 

But that’s not really the point, is it? 

What I do hope for is a good discussion about the many costs and fuzzy benefits of a change. A new stadium in or near downtown Kansas City feels inevitable at the moment, though passions and plans can change like the breeze. Some considerations: 

• The taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in two first-rate stadiums. In Jackson County, we are still paying with every bag of groceries and every trip to the mall, as sales taxes are paying off the bonds that we the voters approved a decade and a half ago to upgrade Kauffman and Arrowhead. 

To walk away from Kauffman is no small thing. Independence Mayor Eileen Weir is right in arguing that the downtown stadium discussion needs to start with a redevelopment plan for Kauffman.  

• Fifty years ago, when the stadiums were under construction – and some, by the way, were pushing hard for an arena at the Truman Sports Complex as well – there was a lot of talk about all the development the stadiums would bring. That’s been a bust, and that has to be acknowledged. The interstate access is great, but the sports complex suffers from the old “there’s no there, there.” Score that as a point in favor of downtown. 

• A downtown stadium only works if the metro area gets serious about transit to and from games. The Kansas City streetcar has been a welcome addition – and has attracted significant private investment along its single corridor – but it’s not the sole solution for game day. The relatively new Minneapolis stadium, for instance, works well in large part because of light rail, an idea that’s never really gotten serious consideration in Kansas City. What reason is there to think that will change? 

• In the end, this will mean public money spent for private gain. That’s how professional sports stadiums work in America. There’s a powerful political constituency for it – the fans, the voters for whom the hometown team is central to identity – but the real question is how much of a public subsidy is justifiable.  

It means spending a large amount up front for hard-to-define spinoff benefits on the other side. Will there be more bars and restaurants or just a shuffling of the current players? It’s fair to say such benefits are inevitably oversold as politicians and voters grasp for a justification for the outcome they want.  

You can make a good case that civic leaders and voters got it right – at least were relatively prudent – in renovating Kauffman and Arrowhead instead of splurging on new stadiums 15 years ago. Now we’re looking at years of posturing and planning and wrangling as the Royals have about a decade left on their Kauffman lease. Hold your wallet tight. 

Failed state tax policy 

Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway has again reminded state legislators and the public about an issue overdue for change. It’s taking money away from state services every year, and there’s no good reason for it. 

If you buy a new TV for $1,000 you will pay, on average in Missouri, $81.80 in sales taxes. So, you pay your $1081.80 and go on your way. The store gets its $1,000 and sends the $81.80 on to Jefferson City, which keeps its share and sends the local shares out across the state. 

Not quite.  

Back in the day, the state decided that retailers who do just one thing they should do anyway – remit the taxes on time – can keep 2 percent of that money for their trouble.  

“The state established the timely sales tax discount so businesses could recover a portion of their costs for compliance with state sales tax laws and to encourage timely remittance of sales and use taxes,” the auditor’s office says in a report released last week. “With increased use of electronic systems to calculate and remit sales tax collections, it is not clear if the continued use of such a discount is necessary to achieve these objectives.” 

That’s a gentle way of saying it’s time to get with the times. The taxes we pay should go for public services, not the private ledger. 

And let this sink in: The General Assembly doesn’t even require the Department of Revenue to track how much the state and local governments are losing. Of the $81.80 you paid in taxes on that TV, the retailer is just pocketing $1.64. That adds up, but the state doesn’t require retailers to say how much. 

About half of the states allow retailers to do this, but most have a cap, meaning small businesses get to keep the full amount but Walmart and Target don’t. Most states don’t go as high as Missouri’s 2 percent. This state has “the most generous such discount in the nation,” the report says. 

Galloway urges the General Assembly to rethink the policy overall, consider a cap and at least have the Department of Revenue track the problem. 

The state of Missouri depends on sales and use taxes for about 22 percent of general revenue. The auditor's office has brought this up before. It’s a no-brainer. The General Assembly should see to it that we get the most from our tax money. 

Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at 816-350-6365, or on Twitter at @FoxEJC.