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Steven Pearlstein

Private Financing Of D.C. Ballpark Just a Tax Shelter

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page E01

Wouldn't it be delicious if Washington, D.C. -- the mecca of tax lobbying -- were to mark the renaissance of Major League Baseball here by building a new stadium that was nothing more than a tax scam.

But that is exactly what would happen if the District were to take up the "private" financing proposal for the $500 million stadium project that so intrigued D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp. About the only good thing you can say for it is that it would finally resolve the question of what to call the new team. What else could you call them but the Washington Loopholes?

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In truth, there is nothing private about the financing scheme that has been proposed here and in other cities.

The District would still have to impose some sort of gross receipts tax to cover the $150 million it will take to fix up RFK Stadium as a temporary home for the new team, assemble the land for the new stadium and pay for the infrastructure improvements around it.

And the District would still be expected to impose a special sales tax on tickets, parking and everything sold at the new stadium. However, under the "private" financing scheme, this money would go to the partnership to cover interest payments on the money borrowed to build the stadium at rates 3 percentage points above what the city would pay.

But here's the really beautiful part of this deal: The rent the partnership would pay the city for the land on which the stadium sits would be recorded on its books as an expense even though no cash would change hands. Instead, payments could be deferred for 25 years until the expiration of the lease, at which point the partnership would either have to cough up the rent in its entirety, with interest, or turn the stadium over to the city for "free," which is what certainly would happen.

Why would investors want to put up $70 million in equity for a piece of what even its promoters promise will be a money-losing stadium partnership? According to the financial script outlined to city officials this week, the annual depreciation for the stadium, along with the deferred rent payments -- both non-cash expenses -- would magically generate about $250 million in tax savings for the partners over the 25-year term of the ground lease. And that works out to a 10 percent annual return on their investment.

This kind of "private" financing scheme, in other words, is nothing more than backdoor public financing, only this time with some of the burden shifted from the District to the federal government and the states where the investors live.

Lease-back deals involving public facilities are nothing new. Metro has used them to finance purchases of subway cars. And the District planned to use a similar arrangement to finance the Wilson Building until it got into a battle royal with the private developer that dragged on for years, resulting eventually in a $15 million settlement. And what do you know -- Richard A. Gross, the lawyer who waged that expensive fight against the District, turns out to be the same Richard A. Gross who put the "private financing" bug in Mrs. Cropp's ear last week.

You would think that, with the budget deficit at record levels and President Bush promising tax reform, Congress might have tried to put an end to these well-publicized tax swindles. That's certainly what the Senate had in mind earlier this year when a bipartisan majority voted to disallow tax deductions from transactions that lack genuine "economic substance." But House Republicans, led by Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), bravely rode to the rescue of the tax shelter industry, insisting that the "economic substance" criteria be dropped in conference.

The way I see it, it was bad enough that the Capital of the Free World had to bow to the larcenous demands of Major League Baseball by promising to build it a new stadium. Let's not make things worse with a cockamamie financing scheme that purports to save money for government by allowing rich investors to weasel out of paying their fair share of taxes.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached at pearlsteins@washpost.com.


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