The Tea Party is coming to the rescue! Seriously. Last month, when the Atlanta Braves announced their intention to abandon Turner Field for a new, publicly subsidized stadium in Cobb County, we were all wondering what America’s favorite “populist movement” would have to say. A local government committing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to a project without a referendum? This was tailor-made for them to go absolutely bananas. And, of course, Cobb County is Tea Party country — the birthplace of Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid and home base of two of its most stalwart members, Republican representatives Tom Price and Phil Gingrey.
On the other hand, when the County Commission passed the plan for the $672 million stadium on a 4-1 vote, the holdout was a lone Democratic commissioner. (Business as usual: When isn’t a highly profitable professional sports team bamboozling a local government into spending millions in tax dollars on a new stadium?)
Liberal talking head Lawrence O’Donnell was confident the Tea Party would cave to the big money. “Here we have the perfect test for the Tea Party,” O’Donnell said on MSNBC after the stadium deal was first announced. “A test the Tea Party will surely fail.”
On the contrary! In the coming days, the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots are expected to file a lawsuit against the Cobb County Board of Commissioners to block construction of the new stadium. The group’s leader, Debbie Dooley, says the deal represents an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money. She also doesn’t like the precedent it could set. “If Cobb County is allowed to get away with this, you can bet other counties will do everything in their power to circumvent a vote by the people for something like this,” she said.
There’s another potential precedent here, too. If the Braves are entitled to subsidies, what about other private corporations? Since the deal was announced, the Weather Channel has already demanded tax breaks for its planned expansion in Cobb County. Who’s next?
There’s something for everyone to hate in the Cobb County deal. Thus, Georgia’s Tea Partiers find themselves making common cause with local environmentalists and transportation activists, who warn that the planned stadium — virtually inaccessible by public transportation — would dramatically increase traffic and pollution in a region already choking on SUVs. Local education advocates oppose the stadium, too; they’d rather see the money go toward closing the county schools’ $80 million deficit and rehiring 182 teachers who’ve been laid off. No wonder the Braves and Cobb County conducted their negotiations in secret.
The man who brokered the deal, Tim Lee, chairman of the county board of commissioners, said the stadium would be an economic boon. He conjured visions of a $400 million development adjacent to the stadium with hotels, retail, restaurants, office space and residences. Yup, it’s the old “ballpark village” con. More often than not, these developments fail to materialize. If this one proves the exception, well, then Cobb County will have just what it doesn’t need: a strip mall on steroids.
For now, however, let’s just thank Dooley and her fellow Patriots and urge them on. Make yourselves useful, Tea Party! Go forth and get angry about publicly financed stadiums! And if the lawsuit falters — we’ll know more about its prospects after it’s filed — the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots can always try to relieve Cobb County’s commissioners of their duties. The Tea Party does love a good recall.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanmahler)
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