The showdown in Olympia over the Sonics is much more than a shoving match between Speaker Frank Chopp, a populist who likes to defy bailouts for sports owners, and the Seattle establishment, which wants the team to buttress Seattle Center and tourism interests and for reasons of civic pride. A bigger issue is the years-long clamoring for a taxing source that might get away.
Those are the so-called "stadium taxes," a mixture of taxes on car rentals, restaurants and bars, hotel rooms, and local sales tax. The money is all generated locally in King County, but instead of going into the Olympia general fund, it gets rebated back to pay off construction of Safeco Field and Qwest Field. And they are supposed to expire as the stadiums are paid off in the next decade.
Expire? In a state with no income tax and Tim Eyman attacking other taxes like license tabs, "expire" is a dirty word. So instead we've had years of backstage maneuvering to direct those expiring taxes to pet projects in King County. Many are lined up, which is one main reason why the politicians in Olympia are reluctant to have the Sonics "jump the queue," thus angering many of the more patient supplicants.
Gov. Gregoire's letter to Mayor Greg Nickels and others, counseling a year of study and prioritizing, lays out many of the interests in the queue: "arts, low-income housing, education, youth sports, community and economic development, Puget Sound cleanup, Husky Stadium renovation, and [Seattle Center] projects."
Note that bit about Husky Stadium, whose advocates also attempted to jump the line earlier in the session (to no avail, apparently). The housing portion is seemingly aimed at housing for the homeless, a priority of Speaker Chopp. A comprehensive package, with something for all these interests, is what the year-long "study" would try to assemble.
Arts? That would be the request, over many sessions, to commit a goodly portion of hotel-motel taxes to 4Culture
, the King County organization that funds arts, culture, and heritage institutions and which would be at a loss in 2012, when lodging taxes for arts expires (it shifts from paying off the Kingdome debt to Qwest Field in 2013). A bill to fund 4Culture with lodging tax money after 2020, when Qwest Field has been paid off, passed the Senate, 44-5, but is held up by Speaker Chopp, and likely doomed for this session.
One more political wrinkle is that the politicians get to spend money without raising their own taxes, which makes these stadium taxes all the sweeter. For instance, King County might reasonably be expected to fund the arts, given all its kind words for the arts, but instead it passes through money from the state. Put another way, the stadium tax money is really levied on visitors, not locals.
This complicated bit of buck-passing has a downside, however, and that is the way it deals politicians at all levels, county, city, state, into the decision-making. Sure enough, King County Executive Ron Sims, through whom all these county-based taxes must pass, has broken ranks
with the City and the Steve Ballmer group wanting to buy the Sonics, by siding with Gregoire's approach of thinking about all the issues for a year, thus "prioritizing and bundling several of the issues to provide the most comprehensive plan for our civic project funding needs."