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Atlanta stadium deal could sink Deal's re-election

Posted: December 12, 2012 - 1:02am

At some point during the next year, Gov. Nathan Deal might have to come up with the correct answer to a most difficult question: Is spending tax money on a new stadium for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank so important that it justifies throwing away the job of governor?

Blank thinks it would be a great idea for the state to spend $300 million from a hotel-motel tax to help pay for a billion-dollar stadium that would replace the Georgia Dome.

The folks at the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (WCCA) are willing to go along with this proposal.

Unfortunately for them, Georgia’s voters don’t think it’s such a great idea. A recent statewide poll found overwhelming opposition to the idea of using tax funds to build a new stadium.

In the survey conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), 75 percent of voters said they opposed using public funds to help build a retractable-roof stadium, while only 12 percent supported the idea.

On a related question, 70 percent of Georgia voters said the Falcons don’t even need a new stadium, even if tax funds aren’t used, while only 15 percent agreed that a new stadium was needed.

That opposition to a stadium deal was also evident last summer in a poll conducted during the runup to the referendum on the transportation sales tax highway tax.

In that poll, 67 percent of metro Atlanta voters disapproved of using tax funds to help build the stadium, while 23 percent said they approved of using tax money.

Even in the face of such strong public opposition, the stadium deal is still moving slowly but surely towards finalization. Representatives of the WCCA are working on the details of a memorandum of understanding that would provide the framework for building the new facility.

The terms would include the WCCA giving the Falcons $300 million in hotel-motel tax funds to build a stadium with a total cost estimated at more than $1 billion. The remainder of the construction money would come from private sources. The state would own the stadium but the Falcons would operate it and retain all the revenues from events staged there.

While the long negotiating process has involved a wide variety of parties, the ultimate decision on using tax funds to build a stadium for Blank will be made by one person: Gov. Nathan Deal.

The WCCA cannot legally issue $300 million worth of bonds that would be paid off with tax revenues unless the General Assembly passes a bill authorizing that bonding capacity. Deal would have the choice of either signing the bill for the project to proceed, or vetoing it to kill the stadium proposal.

Deal could have used the influence of his office to stop the current negotiations and pull the plug on a stadium deal, but he has not – which is an indication that the governor so far is supporting the project.

Given the strong opposition to a taxpayer-funded stadium, that could pose problems for Deal when he runs for a second term as governor in 2014.

The PPP poll results also show that only 37 percent of those surveyed approve of Deal’s job performance while 40 percent disapprove. That’s a level of support that would make any incumbent nervous.

In head-to-head matchups with three potential Democratic opponents, Deal pulls less than 50 percent of the vote. The PPP poll had Deal leading U.S. Rep. John Barrow by only 44-40 percent, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed by 47-40 percent and state Sen. Jason Carter by 46-38 percent.

“Saxby Chambliss has received most of the attention as Georgia looks toward the 2014 election,” said PPP President Dean Debnam. “But in terms of who would be more vulnerable to a Democratic challenger, it may be Nathan Deal.”

The PPP poll did not do any matchups between Deal and a possible Republican primary opponent such as Secretary of State Brian Kemp or Attorney General Sam Olens.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that Deal could be very vulnerable in a GOP primary dominated by tea party activists who oppose the expenditure of tax funds for just about anything, especially a football stadium.

A stadium deal could be a bad deal for Gov. Deal.

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)

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