DALLAS — Arizona’s plan to build an $84 million, bond-financed spring training facility for the Chicago Cubs in Mesa faces stiff opposition, including a challenge to the constitutionality of using public funds for debt service.
Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank, said the financing plans for the baseball facility may violate the state constitution’s ban on using government “gifts” for an individual business.
In a statement on the institute’s Web site, Bolick cited last month’s ruling in the case of Turken v. Gordon, better known as the CityNorth decision.
In that case, the Arizona Supreme Court held that a $97 million subsidy from Phoenix for a parking facility could violate the constitutional ban on government grants to private entities unless they prove a tangible public benefit matching or exceeding that of the subsidy.
Despite the ruling, the court allowed the CityNorth financing to continue but remitted the case to the Arizona Court of Appeals to consider other legal challenges.
Bolick said the CityNorth case clarifies previous decisions the court believed were confusing and applied the rule toward future issues.
The ruling in CityNorth was a victory for the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of six small-business owners in 2007 to halt the use of taxpayer money.
“The court’s decision vindicates a core protection of taxpayer rights in our state constitution,” Bolick said.
However, he cautioned that the Cubs deal poses similar issues. In a bill under consideration in the Legislature, a $1 surcharge on car rentals would pay debt service on $58 million of revenue bonds.
Mesa would provide another $26 million, and revenue would be collected from a surcharge on tickets to Cactus League games. The Cactus League is Major League Baseball’s spring training circuit in Arizona.
“Under the proposed deal, the Cubs reap all of the financial benefits and have to do little more than show up,” Bolick wrote. “Under the CityNorth decision, the beneficiary of a government incentive must produce roughly comparable direct, tangible benefits. The best way to achieve this is fair-market rent, which the Cubs are apparently unwilling to pay.”
Bolick said the deal could be revamped to pass constitutional muster, “but it will require the Cubs to make far greater commitments than they have appeared willing to do.”
Arizona is competing with Naples, Fla., to keep the Cubs in Mesa, their spring training home of more than 50 years. The Cubs have tentatively agreed to stay under terms of an agreement reached last month.
Opponents of the deal include Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and other teams in the Cactus League, which oppose the ticket surcharge.