Thursday, May 1, 2008

I'll believe it when I see it when...

… Illinois state government approves some plan to overhaul Wrigley Field without involving state tax dollars, and

… the Illinois General Assembly actually manages to put a state constitution amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot that provides for recall elections.

NOW I HAVE written before about the substance of the two issues, and my basic stance has not changed. I think recall elections are for sore losers who want to un-do the results of the majority, and I think the majority should have to live with its Election Day mistakes.

Meanwhile, in today’s day and age, governments are involved in the development of stadiums used by professional sports teams, often with leases that are meant to allow the ball clubs to financially rip off the government.

So to argue against some sort of state involvement in the future renovation of Wrigley Field on the grounds that government should have no role, well, that’s cute, but shut up. Nobody cares.

You might as well be arguing that all the riverboat casinos in Illinois should be shut down because gambling is immoral.

WE HERE IN Illinois had our officials make a decision years ago when they built a new Chicago South Side stadium for the White Sox, then provided some assistance for the Chicago Bears to renovate Soldier Field and for the Chicago Black Hawks and Bulls to get their own West Side arena.

Is this a 1929 panoramic view of the future Chicago Cubs State Park, sponsored by ComEd (or some other garish corporate entity)? Photograph provided by Library of Congress collection.

To claim now that there is something repulsive about the Chicago Cubs “getting some” from the state is absurd. It is going to happen. It is just a matter of what form the aid will take.

That is where I get skeptical.

Former Gov. James R. Thompson, who now chairs the government agency that oversees U.S. Cellular Field for the White Sox, says he has figured out a way that no state or local tax dollars would be put into a state purchase of Wrigley Field, with the state then being responsible for providing the significant reconstruction needed on the 94-year-old building to ensure that it can continue to be a viable sports stadium for several more decades.

THOMPSON WOULDN’T TELL the Chicago Tribune what this magical way of government finance without use of government money actually consists of. Chicago Cubs officials also claim to have not heard anything specific about how this transaction will occur.

I suspect that in the end, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority will come up with funding for the purchase and renovation in ways that some government observers of a curmudgeonly nature would believe is state and/or local money.

It is going to be a matter of how strictly one wants to define what constitutes tax dollars, similar to how when former President Bill Clinton famously said, “I did not have sex with that woman,” the truth of that statement depends on how one defines “sex” compared to what he did with intern Monica Lewinsky.

The newspaper, in its reports, hinted that the purchase of the ballpark (which would enrich the Tribune Co. owners of the team who want to sell after 28-years-and-counting of running a team that hasn’t won a thing) could come from money raised by selling the naming rights to Wrigley Field.

BASICALLY, NEW TRIBUNE Co. (run by Sam Zell, as compared to the old Tribune Co. geeks who sold out their interest in the “information and entertainment conglomerate”) would be allowed to pocket the money derived from offending Cubs fans by giving the building at Clark and Addison streets some sort of corporate name.

But renovations of the building along the line of what the New York Yankees did with Yankee Stadium in the mid-1970s or what the Bears did to Soldier Field in 2002 would be pricey – as much as $400 million, some officials estimate.

If the Cubs’ personality and potential profitability weren’t so tied into the cutesy image of their building, they would be better off financially going for a new stadium somewhere else. But the mentality of Chicago political people keeps the sports teams at their current locations – the White Sox will always be on 35th Street, while the Bulls and Black Hawks are on Madison Street. And the Bears have become the team of the lakefront.

So the Cubs can’t seriously think of having a stadium built for them somewhere else without upsetting the politicos. But those same politicos really don’t want to pay for the expensive overhaul of the one-time Weeghman Park.

THE BOTTOM LINE is that those two thoughts are contradictory. One of them will have to give. My guess is that it will be the ban on government funds being involved in the project, which wouldn’t bother me so much if only the state were willing to take a hard line and demand a significant rent payment from the Cubs to play in a stadium maintained at state expense, which would boost the Cubs profitability in and of itself.

But political officials enjoy being able to go to sports events and pretend they are big-shots while they sit in the crowd wearing too-tight caps with their business suits. So they won’t take a hard line.

Another thing they won’t do is actually get a constitutional amendment on the upcoming general election ballot for recall elections.

The Illinois Senate is considering a vote to approve something related to a recall when they meet Thursday. If they actually take the vote and give enough support to approve it, the measure would then have to return to the Illinois House of Representatives, which previously voted on its own recall election measure.

THIS IS A case of everybody in the Legislature wanting to pander to the people who think recalls are a “nifty” idea. Each legislator wants to be able to point to some bill that has him or her voting in favor of the idea.

But since the two chambers never actually agreed on the same identical bill (they agreed on two different bills that were virtually identical – not the same thing), they have not voted to approve anything that can be put on the Nov. 4 election ballots.

By law, any potential amendment to the Illinois Constitution must be approved by the Legislature at least six full months before the Election Day for which it is intended. That means Sunday is the deadline if anything is to happen in 2008.

Recall elections have become the equivalent of pay raises for legislators. Everybody in the General Assembly postures that they are against giving themselves more money at a time when the state is in tight financial times.

BUT SOMEHOW, THEY always manage to fail to agree on a single bill that would reject the pay raises, which means the raises take effect automatically.

The fact that Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, hinted at having the House in session during the weekend just means he wants to put on the appearance of trying, really, really trying, to get something done.

Which means the Blagojevich-bashers of the Illinois political world (who are the people really pushing all this recall nonsense this year) likely will have to find another way to harass our goofy guv with the overblown hair.


EDITOR’S NOTES: No government money for revamping Wrigley Field? (,0,5382365.story) Prove it!

The Illinois House could have to endure “capital punishment” (defined in politico-speak as having to spend a weekend in the capital city of Springfield) to put on a show ( that they want to place a constitutional amendment on recall elections on this year’s ballot.

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