New York state Assemblyman Ron Kim did not hold back on Tuesday when asked for his thoughts on the plan to commit $1.13 billion in public funds to help the billionaire owners of the Buffalo Bills build a new $1.4 billion stadium in Orchard Park.
Tempering enthusiasm expressed on Monday by Gov. Kathy Hochul and other advocates for the project, the Bronx Democrat described the Bills stadium proposal as “one giant scam” that he predicts will be a “horrible” deal for New York State.
“The process of how we got here speaks volume of where we are in the state process itself,” Kim said. “The lack of transparency is astounding.”
As to the assertion from Hochul and others that the deal will keep the Bills in Buffalo for another 30 years, Kim said not so fast. He said there’s “no consensus” on the plan among his Assembly colleagues and, like him, many of them have “serious concerns.”
“We’ve seen these types of last-minute tricks in the budget where they try to dominate the narrative and make it seem like it’s a done deal no matter what we do, and that’s not true,” Kim said.
Kim and state Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan who chairs the Senate’s finance committee, joined a group of economists and representatives from several good government groups for a discussion on Tuesday about stadium subsidies in general and the Bills stadium deal specifically.
Like Kim, Krueger expressed frustration with the process so far, saying Hochul’s administration has shared few details about the Bills stadium proposal.
“We can all fight about the good and bad of it if we all know what the hell is going on, but we don’t. I’m just frustrated beyond belief today,” Krueger said.
Krueger said she has not seen a copy of the so-called “term sheet” outlining the basic terms of the agreement with the Bills. While Poloncarz said both he and Bills owner Terry Pegula signed it on Monday, he indicated that the document has not been made public because it was still awaiting the governor’s signature.
Krueger does expect that the state’s portion of the cost for stadium construction — $600 million — will be included in Hochul’s state budget, which is required to be submitted to state lawmakers by Friday.
She anticipates that the final state cost will be “a whole lot more” than $600 million once interest is calculated.
“I haven’t even had a chance to ask someone to do the math for me. If we take out $600 million for bonds, how much do we pay back?” she said.
Economists involved in Tuesday’s discussion all agreed that research on public subsidies for sports stadiums over the past 40 years shows they offer little to no return on taxpayer investments in the communities where they are built.
Victor Matheson, a sports economist from the College of Holy Cross, has studied more than 100 stadium and arena projects over the course of more than two decades. He said none have involved as large of a public subsidy as the proposed Bills stadium deal. “This is the largest dollar amount ever,” Matheson said.
He also said the proposal represents a shift in public financing for NFL stadiums in recent years.
From 1990 through 2008, he said the public covered about two-thirds of all the money for stadium construction. After 2008, he said that percentage shifted, with the public accounting for about one-third the total cost and private contributions covering the larger share.
The Bills stadium deal, he said, reverts back to the old standard, which passes on the larger share of the total cost to taxpayers.
Matheson noted that, according to Forbes, the value of the Bills has increased from $1 billion when the team was purchased by owners Kim and Terry Pegula in 2014 to $2.3 billion in 2021.
He said he sees no reason why the owners of an NFL football team whose investment has gone up by more than $1 billion in the last seven years can’t afford to pay for their own stadium.
“We don’t need taxpayers to prop up the Buffalo Bills,” Matheson said.
“The benefits that accrue, accrue largely to the owners and the players,” he said. “You put a lot of revenue into the club, and that revenue is shared by the owner and the employees.”
Coates said he’d like to see more details about the stadium plan because without knowing the specific terms, it’s difficult to understand what’s being promised in exchange for all that public money.
One area of particular interest to him: lucrative stadium naming rights.
While it has been reported that the team would retain those rights, Coates said it’s still not clear whether the Bills would use revenue from the sale of those rights to cover part of its portion of the construction cost.
“Frankly, I think this is the most ludicrous thing I can imagine — when my gift to you counts as your contribution,” he said.