New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson has dealt with Louisiana governors so many times he's beginning to think like one of them. His proposal for a new deal to keep the team in New Orleans is loaded with capital outlay goodies designed to pick up legislative votes for what he really wants -- a sweeter deal for himself at the taxpayers' expense.
Benson's proposal calls for the state to continue paying increased annual subsidies to the Saints and to renovate the Superdome so that it will generate even more lucrative concessions for the team through 2020. In return, he offered to remove all "out clauses" that allow the Saints to leave New Orleans after paying a penalty. He also suggests that the deal be consummated by Feb. 1 so that he can help New Orleans land either the 2009 or the 2010 Super Bowl, both of which will be awarded in the spring.
In addition, Benson proposes building a 25-acre tailgate park near the Superdome, a team hotel near Saints headquarters in Metairie, a multipurpose sports facility in eastern New Orleans and a "sports-themed" redevelopment of the New Orleans Centre -- all of which would be underwritten by taxpayers, of course.
Will it work?
Silly question. Of course it will. It's a tried-and-true formula. The real questions are:
• How much will it cost?
• Which goodies will have to be added to the bill, or removed from it, to ensure passage?
• Where will the money come from to pay for it all?
The fact that Benson has extensive experience at leveraging moolah from the state (read: us taxpayers) makes him a cagey player in this very expensive game. By contrast, Gov. Kathleen Blanco is a rookie.
But don't sell her short. Blanco already has proved her mettle by taking the idea of a new stadium off the table. Oh, sure, Benson's official opening offer last week included a new stadium as one of three options, but that was just a bargaining chip -- as was the third option (moving the team). Neither is going to happen.
To her credit, the Governess weeks ago staked out a very reasonable position -- one that is fiscally and politically defensible -- when she insisted that the Saints contribute to the cost of renovating the Superdome. Moreover, she maintains that the team should not expect the state to pay all renovation costs and continue to give the Saints annual subsidies that grow to more than $23 million a year by 2008.
Bear in mind, the Saints get millions more from the NFL's network television deal and from the organization's lock on Superdome concessions.
Speaking of Mr. Benson's millions, what about him opening his books for independent review? If he's going to demand so many millions from taxpayers, shouldn't they get an independent review of his books instead of just taking his word that the Saints need a better deal to remain "competitive" with other NFL teams?
(As an aside, am I the only one who thinks that we compete with other NFL teams on the field first and foremost? Has anyone heard even a word from Benson about improving the team's gridiron performance? But, I digress ... )
Anyone who's ever read a financial statement can tell you there are lots of ways -- legitimately -- to make financial reports look as rosy or as conservative as you want them to look, depending on your agenda. An independent accounting of the organization's finances for the past three years (including cash flow analysis, balance sheet and annual income statements) would reveal a lot.
Would Benson submit to such an outside review?
Probably not, but it's a legitimate request for Blanco to make in light of the fact that Benson wants so many public dollars -- particularly when he bases his demands on his own, unverified financial assertions.
Blanco already has said the Saints are asking too much, and she promises to unveil a counterproposal in the coming weeks. I think she'll be a craftier negotiator than many expect -- including Benson. For example, don't be surprised if she presents her plan a day or two after the team suffers a heartbreaking defeat. Which could be any given Sunday.