Three weeks ago, I joined five other legislators in suing Gov. Jay Nixon and the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority over their plan to spend more than $400 million in taxpayer money on a new stadium that is more than half a mile away from the Cervantes Center.
We filed the lawsuit as ordinary taxpayers, but obviously with our role as state legislators in mind as well. To date, I have refused public comment on the lawsuit other than through the briefs I filed. On the day we filed suit, I received dozens of phone calls from media – including national media. I declined to speak with them.
The reason is simple: I didn’t file this lawsuit to get into the news. I filed it because I have serious concerns about Gov. Nixon’s attempt to run roughshod over the rule of law. Current state statutes put stop signs in place to prevent the accumulation of millions of dollars and decades of stadium debt without further legislative action. Whether a taxpayer-funded new stadium is a wise investment is not relevant to this case. The law is what matters, not economic projections.
Rather than seek legislative approval by changing current statutes, Gov. Nixon effectively decreed on his own that the twenty-six year old statute created a never-ending blank check to fund new stadiums. After we sued, Nixon blitzed St. Louis sports media and argued that the fact there are only six of us is proof that the legislature supports what he’s doing.
Gov. Nixon knows that’s a lie. Every senator voted against Nixon taking unilateral action. And the Senate placed language in a budget bill to that effect, but it was scuttled in conference committee at the behest of now-resigned Speaker John Diehl. If we would have had a vote in the House, it would have been overwhelmingly against Gov. Nixon.
Nevertheless, these actions were not necessary. The current statutes prohibit what Gov. Nixon is doing. We have made five claims in the lawsuit, but three relatively simple ones are more important than the other two.
First, the statute that created the mechanism for building stadiums with taxpayer funded bonds prohibits refinancing or extending the bonds in a way that increases the amount of principal or interest owed. Yet, Gov. Nixon’s plan would increase the amount of principle and interest owed by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Second, the statute prohibits stadium bonds that have a maturity date in excess of 50 years. The original bonds for the stadium began in 1991. The 50 year period for the stadium bonds expires in 2041. Yet, Gov. Nixon’s plan would extend the bond payments until 2048 at the rate of $12 million per year.
Third, the statute requires that any new football stadium must be build “adjacent to an existing convention facility.” The only “existing convention facility” at the time the legislation passed in 1989 was the Cervantes Convention Center. This language did not just magically appear in the bill. It was added by a House committee after hearing testimony that the purpose of the bill was to “finance the construction of an exhibition center adjacent to the Cervantes Convention Center.”
A memo to the committee explained, “The new complex would be the largest convention center on one level in the United States and would allow St. Louis to host both more and larger conventions and meetings than can be accommodated today.” Almost as an afterthought, the memo mentioned, “The facility also could be used for professional football games and other major events.”
The Cervantes expansion had been a major goal of St. Louis City for at least three years. In February 1986, St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl announced plans for expansion and appointed a committee to explore funding options. In May 1986, he announced plans to, in the words of the St. Louis Convention and Visitor’s Commission that operates the Dome today, “pursue the construction of a domed expansion to the convention center which includes exhibition and meeting space and more than 60,000 fixed seats.”
Gov. John Ashcroft signed the bill into law on the last possible day in 1989. At the signing, he barely mentioned football. Instead, he noted the bill was “but a first step in a long process necessary for potential expansion of the St. Louis Convention Center.”
Twenty-six years later, Gov. Nixon’s proposed new stadium is more than half a mile away from the Cervantes Center. That’s seven to nine city blocks. In between stands an Interstate highway, several city streets, blocks of proposed parking lots, other lots, and even a casino. To put that in Cole County perspective, the Proposed New Stadium is farther away from the Cervantes Center than Capital Plaza Hotel is from the Cole County Courthouse. Imagine if our City Council or County Commission tried to argue it was building an annex to the courthouse located in the parking lot of Capital Plaza.
When we filed the lawsuit, I anticipated a spirited defense by Gov. Nixon and the Convention and Sports Complex Authority. But, a recent turn of events shocked me.
In March, the Convention and Sports Complex Authority sued the City of St. Louis seeking to overturn a city ordinance that would require a public vote before any city taxpayer funds went to a new stadium. It’s a friendly lawsuit. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay supports the new stadium.
Last Friday, the City of St. Louis filed a counter-claim based on the same “adjacency” issue we identified in our lawsuit. From afar that would seem good for taxpayers. Turns out, if you look closely, the City’s “adjacency” counterclaim is made in way that seems designed to lose. Why? My theory is that stadium supporters want to use a favorable ruling in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis based on slipshod arguments to prevent the plaintiffs in our lawsuit, representing Missouri taxpayers, from having their day in court in Cole County. They could argue this under a legal doctrine called collateral estoppel. Under this, a party simply says, “Look judge, this issue has already been decided in another case. You have to follow that prior decision.”
On Friday, I sped up the time frame in Cole County by filing a motion for preliminary injunction and noticing it up for hearing this Tuesday. Missouri taxpayers deserve a fair hearing in this case after vigorous argument from adversarial parties. Gov. Nixon does not get to decide on his own whether he has legal authority to do this, and we will not let St. Louis political power brokers prevent us from having our day in court on behalf of Missouri taxpayers.
This lawsuit started with concerns over the rule of law. The City of St. Louis and Convention Authority upped the stakes last Friday. I’m confident that the case will have a fair hearing in Cole County with both sides zealously represented. I don’t believe the other side has even a colorable case. But, just as Gov. Nixon doesn’t get to decide, neither do I. Instead, a judge will rule – a Cole County judge to start, which is appropriate because this is a state taxpayer lawsuit and this is the seat of state government. Eventually, it may be decided by seven judges on the Missouri Supreme Court.