Boise's New Stadium Referendum Requirement Should Be a Model for Other Cities

A proposition approved last week will require a majority of city voters to approve any future stadium project that uses more than $5 million in public money.


Voters in Boise, Idaho, voted overwhelmingly last week to require more votes before the city can spend public money on stadiums. It's an idea that other cities and states should copy.

The so-called "vote for a vote" proposition will require a majority of city voters to approve any future stadium project that uses more than $5 million in public money. More than 50,000 ballots were cast in the Election Day referendum, and more than 75 percent of voters supported the idea. Its passage may complicate the city council's plans to build a $50 million soccer and/or baseball stadium in the hopes of attracting a minor league franchise.

Boise voters also approved a similar measure that prohibits the city from spending more than $25 million on library construction projects—the city has proposed building an $85 million library—without voter approval.

In both cases, giving taxpayers a more direct say over expensive building projects makes sense. On his Field of Schemes blog, stadium critic Neil deMause favorably compares the new Boise referendum to a similar ballot initiative passed a decade ago in Seattle. The Seattle measure, known as "I-91," requires that city officials demonstrate stadium projects would generate a return on investment exceeding how much the city could earn by investing the same amount of public money in U.S. Treasury bonds. It has been one of the more effective local limitations on stadium boondoggles across the county, deMause argued in a 2017 piece for Deadspin.

Requiring a public vote on stadium projects is an even better check on bad deals—in part because it would force those deals to be made more transparently. Boise's new requirement would effectively prevent the kind of shenanigans that occurred in Cobb County, Georgia, in 2013, when county officials and Major League Baseball's Atlanta Braves negotiated a secret deal to bring the team to the city's northern suburbs. Taxpayers were put on the hook for $400 million in stadium construction costs, but there was almost no public discussion of the agreement before county officials voted to approve it. Braves' president John Schuerholz later admitted that the deal was done in private to avoid a public backlash.

The county commissioner who engineered the whole thing was voted out of office in 2016. That provides a bit of a satisfying ending, but obviously it would be better for taxpayers and voters to be able to stop bad stadium deals before they are made, rather than simply booting politicians who make them.

Requiring a referendum isn't an automatic death knell for stadiums. Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers are moving into a new $1 billion stadium in 2020, and the $500 million in public funding was approved by voters in Arlington, Texas, with a 2016 referendum.

It makes sense for cities to ensure that residents have a say in stadium subidies. The benefits of forcing additional transparency into a process where team owners and public officials have a strong incentive to mislead or hide details is itself reason enough to follow Boise's example.

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  1. Soccer and/or baseball … now there’s a winning combination. Call it baser, or socball. Pitcher kicks the ball to the catcher — batterkicker kicks it away — infielders and outfielders try to intercept it and kick it back.

    Might even be able to finally get rid of the designated spitter playve, cuz, hell, everyone’s kicking it now, no fragile pitchers cluttering up the lineup.

    1. Wouldn’t that be plain, old kickball?

  2. Seems like a good idea to require a public vote on stadium projects, but I’m afraid it might backfire.

    To win votes from various interest groups, the projects would become Christmas trees, augmented with assorted goodies for this group or that. Voters might reject a $50M stadium by itself, but pass a $60M stadium plus skateboard park plus public art plus increased trolley funding plus…

  3. It would have been a good idea if the limit was $10.00 instead of 5 million.

    1. Nah, no self-respecting minor league grifter is going to practice his art in your town for a piddling 5 million when they can get tens or hundreds of millions from more amenable suckers.

  4. Yes, because $4,999,999 good, $5,000,001 bad.

    Has there ever been a stadium that was a good deal for taxpayers?

    This comment not approved by Silicon Valley brain slugs.

    1. Back in the fifties when the stadiums would sell out most games several paid for themselves – but those were smaller and cheaper than the ones we have now, and something like a third of them were built entirely with private funds. Most of those originals have been torn down now to make way for their expensive, heavily subsidized antecedents in an era of declining attendance and dwindling interest.

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  6. Doesn’t “Subsidizing” sports create an imbalance in the law of supply and demand? Sure, mobster vote theft is better than just theft itself but is college sports really so substantial to even be on the mobster vote list at ALL…..

    Everyone could honestly (not corruptively – mobster voting) decide the VALUE of college sports by paying for it on demand.

    1. Perhaps then – we can REALLY find out if coaches bring a value to people worth $5M/yr salary or not.

  7. The so-called “vote for a vote” proposition will require a majority of city voters to approve any future stadium project that uses more than $5 million in public money.

    Why should any public money at all be used? Let the developers/promoters use their own money or donations from willing contributors.

  8. Seattle in all its infinite Whiz Dumb decided the city and surrounds needed a new big stadium. It was put to a statewide vote, as they would need more money than Seattle alone could generate. The measure on the ballot for a direct vote by the residents pledged that the Kingdome would not be taken away, and in fact, would get a signifinant lump of cash to do some needed repair on the roof structure. We voted it down. NO< we said. Next year it came back, same promises, same result. That time there was an explicit promise that NO STATE TAX DOLLARS would be used to build it. Voted it down again. Next year the legislature decided it was "in the public interest" to go ahead and build the new stadium. Again, promises the KingDome would be repaired and retained.
    Construction started pretty soon, the ding to the state tax coffers was pretty heavy. The first one got built. Parking was needed…. so much of the KingDome's parking was coopted for that purpose. Then a SECOND new stadium was built, just across a large street from the first. WITH tax dollars in large quantities. THEN the same scoundrels announced they REALLY needed the parking space presently occupied by the KingDome.. yes, the very structure they PROMISED we would not have taken from us. The demo crew spent a month placing and wiring the charges, I watched the big BOOM on video. It went from standing, strong, usable, structure to a pile of rubble on the dirt in about a half minute. Impressive as that was to watch, it was also VERY wrong…. the politicians had broken their promises to we the people who PAY them, and did the very thing they had pledged NOT to do.

    1. Well, blowing up the Kingdome fixed the roof problem. Didn’t it?

    2. So help out all of us who don’t follow Seattle; were there any elections between any of those boondoggles?

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  10. Yes, there is need for new stadium.
    Ipl, worlds biggest domestic tournament is going to start soon.

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