There are times when I look at how our elected officials spend our tax dollars and I shake my head in amazement, asking: “What are these people thinking?”
I’ve done a lot of head-shaking over recent discussions about a new stadium for Arthur Blank and the professional football team he owns, the Atlanta Falcons.
It appears that the World Congress Center Authority will agree to build that new stadium for Blank, despite the fact that the Georgia Dome is less than 20 years old and would have to be torn down.
The price tag for that proposed sports edifice is estimated at just under $950 million, although the final cost would probably exceed $1.2 billion when you figure in cost overruns and inflation. The General Assembly passed a bill in 2010 that authorized the city of Atlanta to collect an estimated $300 million in hotel-motel taxes to help pay for the stadium.
Mayor Kasim Reed supports a new stadium and has no problems with turning over the $300 million in tax funds for that purpose. But is that really the best thing we could do with the money?
Wouldn’t it be a better use of those tax funds if Atlanta spent it to rebuild highways and improve transit facilities? The tax proceeds could also be used to help finish the city’s court-ordered renovation of its water-sewer system, an undertaking so expensive that Atlanta is trying to negotiate for an additional 14 years to finish the work.
Arthur Blank is one of Georgia’s wealthiest residents, with a net worth estimated at $1.4 billion by Forbes magazine. If he really wants a new stadium that badly, he can raise his own money to pay for it, just as other business owners must handle their own financing when they expand their facilities.
Atlanta and the surrounding metro counties would benefit far more from using that $300 million for better roads and sewer facilities than from a new stadium for a billionaire football team owner.
We recently learned that state and local governments are giving the healthcare products firm Baxter International a package of tax breaks and financial incentives that potentially could total more than $240 million in return for Baxter’s agreement to locate a manufacturing facility in a suburban area east of Atlanta.
Baxter International is not a struggling startup company that needs government assistance so that it can launch a new business operation. It is a huge corporation that reported total revenues of $13.89 billion in 2011 — that’s almost as much as Georgia’s revenue department received in tax collections during the year. Baxter had net earnings of $2.25 billion on those revenues.
With Baxter International and Arthur Blank, our elected officials have chosen to funnel huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to entities that already are making billions of dollars. They don’t really need all that money we’re throwing at them.
At the same time that we’re giving away that tax money, we’re asking Georgians to pay another penny in sales tax so that we can raise funds to repair our current roads and build some new ones.
At the same time that we’re giving away that tax money, we’ve also been cutting state funding to local school systems, which has forced school boards to lay off teachers and increase class sizes.
A recent report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution disclosed that budget cuts will result in 1,800 fewer employees among the major Metro Atlanta school systems for the upcoming academic year.
The Gwinnett County school system will cut 585 teaching and non-teaching positions while Cobb County will cut 250 positions, Atlanta 250, Henry County 200, DeKalb County 133, Clayton County 100 and Fayette County 100.
Those funding cutbacks have adversely affected the smaller school systems in rural counties as well.
It’s all a matter of where your priorities are. Is it better to give our tax dollars to wealthy corporations that don’t really need them? Or is it a better investment for Georgia’s future to use that money to build roads, hire school teachers, and provide clean drinking water?
To me, that one’s a no-brainer. I’ll go for smaller class sizes and better roads every time.
Many of our elected officials disagree with that, of course. That leaves me shaking my head in amazement.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)