SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2000/Opinion

Candidate’s rhetoric collides with team owner’s record

Does Texas Gov. and Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush believe in his party's position of smaller government by the reduction of agencies and a reduction of taxes? One of the planks of Bush's 2000 platform is a call for smaller government and a tax cut. But when it comes to pro sports, Bush does not exactly practice what he preaches.

Bush, whose family has been in the business of government for three generations — his grandfather Prescott was a U.S. senator from Connecticut, his father George was president from 1989 to 1993 and had a long career in big government including a stint as CIA director, and his brother Jeb is Florida governor — owned a piece of the Texas Rangers between 1989 and 1994. He put the club in a trust after being elected governor of Texas and finally sold the team to Thomas O. Hicks in 1998.

Hicks was a big-pockets contributor to the Bush gubernatorial campaigns.

In 1989, Bush invested some $600,000 to control 2 percent interest in the Rangers. The ownership group went to Arlington Mayor Richard Greene in 1990 and told Greene it needed a new stadium or the team would move, possibly to St. Petersburg.

Arlington residents eventually passed a referendum that raised the local sales tax by 0.5 percent to fund up to 70 percent of the cost of the stadium. The Ballpark in Arlington opened in 1994. Bush and his partners not only had a new park, but they controlled 270 acres of land surrounding the stadium — land which they got from Arlington through eminent domain. The stadium and the 270 acres of land cost $196 million, with about $135 million coming from the sales tax.

Bush sold the team and the rights to land around the park in 1998 and received $14 million for his share. The total purchase price was $250 million for the team, the ballpark — which was built by Arlington residents — and the land.

Businessmen are entitled to profits and can use whatever legal means to forward a business. But Bush's call for fiscal responsibility, tax cuts and small government by having fewer government agencies smacks of hypocrisy. His wheeling and dealing in sports was because of government largesse.

In 1997, the Texas Legislature was faced with numerous stadium and arena problems in Houston and Dallas. Astros owner Drayton McLane told Houston officials that he was going to follow the lead of Oilers owner K.S. "Bud" Adams and move from Houston without a new stadium. Hicks, owner of the NHL Stars, and the Dallas Mavericks were looking for a new arena.

The Legislature put together a "big" government package for sports and other cultural projects. Local municipalities could raise hotel/motel occupancy and car rental taxes by as much as 2 percent to fund arenas, stadiums, museums, libraries, convention centers, concert halls and other venues.

Gov. Bush signed the bill into law while he still owned the Texas Rangers. The law ensured government involvement in private enterprise and would raise taxes if voters approved referendums.

The new law helped Hicks immediately and Dallas voters passed legislation to build a new arena. McLane got his new stadium in Houston, the NFL will be getting a stadium for the new Houston expansion team. Voters in San Antonio/Bexar County approved raising hotel and motel tax rates along with car rental taxes for a new indoor arena for the Spurs.

Voters turned down a new arena in Houston, but arena proponents plan to raise the question again in 2000 as Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander's lease winds down at Compaq Center. Alexander can become a free agent in 2003.

Bush also approved legislation in 1999 that paves the way for Houston and Dallas to seek the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. In another government move, the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing either city to guarantee its bid with sales tax revenue generated from Olympic-related items.

Houston and Dallas voters would have to approve of the idea of hosting the Olympics and allow the tax. The sales tax would meet the U.S. Olympic Committee requirement that the host city's state would pick up the costs of Olympic-related overruns. The Houston 2012 Foundation would like to get the referendum before voters in November when presumably Texas' governor is the Republican candidate for president.

So is George W. Bush a fiscal conservative who wants to cut back on "big government" and government spending? Or is George W. Bush a liberal spender and who endorses government help in private enterprises like sports?

It's a question Bush should answer.

Evan Weiner does a daily sports commentary called "The Business of Sports" for Metro Source, a division of the Westwood One Radio Network.

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