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A’s swing and miss again with ballpark presentation, but this game’s not over

John L. Smith
John L. Smith
Opinion
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From left, analyst Jeremy Aguero, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Hill and Oakland A's President Dave Kaval during a presentation to a Senate committee of the whole on the Oakland A's proposed stadium funding during the 35th special session of the Legislature on June 7, 2023, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent).

This week found representatives of the Oakland A’s feeling the heat as members of the State Senate, sitting Wednesday in a second special legislative session, listened to their ham-handed sales pitch for public financing to help pay for a baseball stadium with a Strip address.

How’d it go, sports fans?

The Legislature walked off the field and went home for the weekend. As Bob Uecker once cracked about a very wild pitch, the A’s sales job was “Just a bit outside.”

The team’s $1.5 billion ballpark proposal, which includes $380 million in tax subsidies and write-offs, drew so few fans you’d be excused for confusing it with an A’s home game. 

The Democrats were particularly prickly, and with good reason. They’ve spent weeks having the price tags of some of their progressive education and health proposals vilified. Several privately blame the team’s slapdash proposal and late-hour lobbying effort for dragging them into extra innings following the adjournment of the 120-day regular session.

They also have their own political futures to think about. The A’s lack of follow through now puts legislators at odds with organized labor organizations that many rely on for campaign support.

So, the Democrats made team President Dave Kaval, paid analyst Jeremy Aguero and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Steve Hill pay with the equivalent of a little chin music. That’s the sound a fastball makes when it intentionally whizzes past a batter’s head. Frankly, they should have seen it coming.

If the team’s proposal sounded familiar, it’s because it was essentially identical to the one it presented May 29 before the joint meeting of the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees. At that meeting, legislators flagged its shortcomings and had expressed concerns. As Democratic Sen. Rochelle Nguyen reminded them, “What is before us today is the exact same bill that we heard 10 days ago,” she said. “To say I’m extremely disappointed that no work has been done on this bill is an understatement.”

You want frustration? Here’s frustration.

“You’ve all called us in here for a special session and are asking, minimally, for the state to give you all $36 million per year for the next five years for a taxpayer-funded stadium at the same time that the governor has vetoed funding for summer school, a bill to support children’s mental health, a bill requiring paid family leave, all because the governor said we couldn’t afford them,” Nguyen said. “Can you explain to me why we need to provide hundreds of millions of dollars for a billionaire’s team to come to the Las Vegas Strip, on some of the most valuable property in the world, if we can’t provide funding for critical resources for summer school and health care?”

It got worse from there.

Democratic Sens. Pat Spearman, Dina Neal and others drilled into the bill’s financial details and its fuzzy community outreach elements. From lofty attendance expectations to its lack of a sufficient traffic study, the team’s lack of preparation showed.

With 17 separate taxes and charges flowing back to the team to repay the $120 million in bonds underwritten by Clark County, a key element of the funding plan, there’s a helluva lot more than baseball riding on the deal. There’s also an issue of fairness, and plenty of small businesses near the proposed stadium don’t have anyone pitching for them at the Legislature for tax breaks.

With the exception of fiscal hawks Robin Titus and Ira Hansen, most senate Republicans sounded more like fans than skeptics. At one point, I expected a couple to break into a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Then again, Gov. Joe Lombardo has been the stadium deal’s No. 1 supporter.

For my money, a telling moment came when Democratic Sen. Fabian Doñate, whose district includes the stadium site, attempted to get A’s president Kaval to answer whether the team intended to collect a live-entertainment tax on tickets that professional sports teams from which professional sports teams in Las Vegas are exempt.

Kaval digressed, reminding the lawmaker about its $1 billion investment and promise to being a “great community partner.”

“So, I think by bringing additional tourists and other ways to generate tax dollars for the community, we think our project can actually be a net positive for the community, plus the quality of life that comes with a baseball team,” Kaval said.

Doñate pressed forward with what he called a yes-or-no question.

“The legislation as it’s currently envisioned does not contemplate that,” Kaval responded. “The project is based on what is currently proposed. We’re focusing on that as really the path forward for the team and the community.”

Some of his critics call the A’s boss “Kavalanche.” Doñate settled for calling him disingenuous.

At Clark County, sources are wondering why the A’s haven’t bothered to call more often. In addition to the enormous investment the county is making in the project financing and the impact the stadium figures to have on traffic and public safety, at times there’s been what was described to me what sounds like an attention-deficit issue with some team officials seeking a new partner in a new state.

Amid such confusion and unanswered questions, it’s no wonder some lawmakers are already fielding rumors about whether the team owner John Fisher intends to make Las Vegas a permanent home, or sell the A’s in a few years.

So why is the stadium deal still alive?

In part, because its construction figures to generate hundreds of good-paying union jobs. Although unemployment is low, billion-dollar developments don’t come along every day, even in Las Vegas.

Representatives of those labor organizations, including the politically clout-heavy Culinary Union, lined up late Wednesday in support of the project. That sent an undeniable message.

Legislators I’ve spoken with say they’re being reminded by their friends in labor of the importance of this project. Democrats on either side of the proposal expressed concern about primary challenges over the issue.

Thanks to the A’s lack of polished salesmanship, it’s the Democrats who might end up feeling the heat.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.

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