There’s an old joke that goes, “a bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.”
It’s a humorous remark that has an edge of reality to it, as anyone who’s ever tried to take out a loan can confirm.
Georgia’s political leadership follows a similar philosophy when it comes to deciding how to spend the revenues collected from taxpayers: they’ll give heaping piles of public funds to people who don’t really need the money.
This philosophy was on display in Cobb County two nights before Thanksgiving when the county commissioners voted 4-1 to spend $300 million in public funds, much of it in property taxes, to build a new stadium for the corporation that owns the Atlanta Braves.
The commissioners approved a deal that was negotiated in secret and had only been made public two weeks earlier. They never held an official hearing where the people whose taxes will pay for the stadium would actually have had a chance to say something about it.
This kind of backroom dealing is par for the course. Earlier this year, the governor and the mayor of Atlanta arranged a similar deal behind closed doors to spend $200 million in tax revenues on a new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons.
Overall, we’re talking about at least half a billion dollars in tax money that was promised to private corporations without taxpayers having a say or a vote in the matter. Neither Cobb County nor the City of Atlanta even considered the idea of putting the stadium issues on the ballot in a referendum.
The entities receiving these bountiful mounds of the taxpayers’ money are not struggling startup businesses that need a helping hand from the government to become successful. Far from it.
The Atlanta Braves are owned by Liberty Media, a Colorado-based corporation that also holds a major stake in the SiriusXM satellite broadcasting company. Liberty Media has a market value of about $17.5 billion.
Liberty Media is controlled by its chairman, John C. Malone, who has a total net worth estimated at somewhere around $6.7 billion and is ranked as one of the richest men in America. In 2011, Malone surpassed Ted Turner as the largest individual private landowner in this country, with ownership of 2.1 million acres. He also owns Humewood Castle in Ireland.
Apparently, this castle-owning billionaire is so destitute that Cobb County’s commissioners felt the charitable urge to give his company $300 million in tax money for a new stadium.
Arthur Blank, the Atlanta Falcons owner, is a much poorer man by comparison — the net worth of the Home Depot founder is estimated at only $1.7 billion. Obviously, because he has such paltry financial resources, our state and city governments found it necessary to give Blank another $200 million for his retractable-roof football stadium.
This generosity to the wealthy extends to the granting of tax breaks to our corporate citizens.
For several years, state legislators have overwhelmingly voted to give huge tax exemptions to companies like Gulfstream Aerospace and Delta Air Lines.
Gulfstream Aerospace is owned by General Dynamics, which is headquartered in Virginia and reported revenues of $31.5 billion for 2012. For that same year, Delta Air Lines reported revenues of $36.7 billion and net earnings of $1.009 billion.
The state-funded portion of the Georgia budget amounts to about $19 billion a year. Gulfstream’s parent company and Delta each bring in more revenue in one year than Georgia spends to run its state government in nearly two years. But it’s the state that’s giving them tax breaks worth more than $20 million a year.
These tax giveaways have become so generous, at a time when local school systems can’t afford to keep schools open for a full academic year, that some politicians are finally starting to talk about them.
“Where are our priorities?” state school Superintendent John Barge asked. “We’re building a new Falcons stadium. We’re building a new Braves stadium. At the same time, we’re underfunding public education by a billion dollars a year.”
Barge, who is running in the Republican primary for governor, has raised an interesting question. I wonder if other candidates will raise that same question in next year’s campaigns.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.