Former governor: Give public a say in stadium spending

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is looking to get a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot in Chicago that would gauge public input about public funds being used for sports stadium projects. (Facebook photo)

Third in a series looking at the public funding of sports stadiums in Illinois

Pat Quinn was on the ice in 2010 when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, and in Houston in 2005 when the White Sox won the World Series.

He was even at the Bulls’ first game at the Chicago International Amphitheater.

“Of all the governors in Illinois history, there has been no bigger sports fan than me,” Quinn said in an interview with Chronicle Media. “I love sports, but I am also a fan of taxpayers.”

That is why the former governor has proposed a nonbinding referendum be put on the November ballot in Chicago, asking if public funding should be used for new stadiums for the Chicago Bears and White Sox.

The Chicago resident who spent time in both the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices said elected officials pay attention when voters speak.

“Politicians at every level follow election returns,” Quinn said. “That is the one language they really understand. That is why the people of Chicago should have a chance to vote, to give their opinion on taxpayer money for new stadiums.”

Quinn said it has been standard procedure around the country for billionaire team owners to get stadiums and facility improvements at taxpayer expense.

The April 2 vote in Jackson County, Missouri where voters defeated a referendum to extend a local sales tax for 40 years to fund a new baseball stadium for the Kansas City Royals and major renovations at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, should be a wake-up call for Chicago team owners, according to Quinn.

The referendum failed with 58 percent of voters saying ‘no.’”

That despite commercials with Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelsey urging a “yes” vote.

“People like them on the field, but they don’t want to have to pay for that field,” Quinn said.

He said the Jackson County vote is indicative of the growing sentiment against public funding of billionaires’ stadium projects.

“Taxpayers and voters are tired and fed up with insider deals that put together politicians and owners of sports teams and do not give the public a voice at all,” Quinn said. “Taxpayers’ role is just to pay up. We need to fight against that.”

Quinn said that plain and simple, taxpayers should have a say in public money being used for stadium projects.

“It’s the whole idea of democracy,” he said. “Taxpayers have a right to vote on the use of their money. If school districts want to issue bonds for building improvements, voters need to approve it.”

Quinn has filed the necessary paperwork with the city of Chicago to get the issue in front of Chicago voters in the fall. His proposal is scheduled to be brought before the full City Council on Wednesday, April 17.

It is Quinn’s hope that the proposed referendum legislation gets assigned to the City Council’s Committee on Committees and Rules for consideration and then eventually back to the full council.

Quinn said aldermen need to approve the measure by Aug. 19 to get it on the November ballot.

The Chicago resident said he has been reaching out to aldermen to alert them to his effort and seeking their support.

The Bears are seeking public land south of Solider Field for a new stadium. The White Sox are seeking as much as $1 billion in city and state money for a new stadium.

Quinn noted the last renovations to Solider Field — the one that put a “spaceship” on the old stadium — won’t be paid off for another eight years.

The former governor tried to get a similar referendum on the ballot before those improvements 25 years ago, but then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley ignored the effort.

“It was not a good deal then and it’s not a good deal now,” Quinn said.

He said Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who campaigned on democracy and transparency, would be letting taxpayers down if he gave in to the Bears.

“I don’t think if the mayor of Chicago goes in a closed-door meeting with the Bears and comes out and says, ‘We have a deal,’ that that deal is going to be good for the taxpayers.”

In 2002, when Daley was ready to sign off on the Bears selling the naming rights to Soldier Field — one of only two National Football League stadiums not to have a corporate name attached to it — Quinn was able to get a nonbinding referendum on the ballot in the three Chicago precincts near Daley’s home, asking about the naming rights. When the measure failed in Daley’s own backyard, the handwriting was on the wall, Quinn said.

“It’s a war memorial,” Quinn said of Soldier Field. “The city back then was willing to give the Bears $300 million (for the naming rights).”

Bank One, now Chase, was looking at paying the Bears $10 million per year for 30 years for the stadium’s naming rights.

“That money was not going to go to the taxpayers, but the Bears,” Quinn said. “They were going to take the name of Soldier Field and defile it.”

With any new stadium, the Bears are again looking at selling the naming rights, Quinn said.

A longtime public watchdog, Quinn said team owners should simply build their own stadiums.

Asked about threats, such as White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf saying the team could move to Nashville, Tennessee if a new stadium is not forthcoming, Quinn believes that is just posturing.

“I think it’s a scare tactic,” he said. “That thinking is not legitimate at all. Teams belong to the fans, not the owners. The owners are trustees for the fans.

“The notion that if teams do not get what they want they are leaving needs to be examined. Kansas City has won three Super Bowls in five years. They have very loyal fans. The owner said the team would have to reassess things if the Arrowhead referendum was not approved. Voters were not moved by the scare tactic.”

He said now is the time to take a stand.

“Sooner or later, taxpayers have to put their foot down,” Quinn said, “We don’t expect teams to bleed us to death to build new stadiums. It’s basic economics. We shouldn’t have to subsidize wealthy owners.”

Quinn financed his own poll to examine the issue. He said two-thirds of voters do not support taxpayer dollars being used for stadium subsidies.

The former mayor said Chicago residents should make sure the mayor and their alderman know how they feel on the issue via emails, texts, and phone calls.

“Part of winning the battle is to raise awareness,” Quinn said.