The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Commanders stadium study short on fans in Virginia legislature

Virginia state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) chairs the subcommittee that recommended nixing the funding for a Commanders stadium study. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — The Washington Commanders face another tough season in Richmond, with state Senate budget-writers opposed to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s plan to spend $500,000 to study ways to lure the National Football League team to Virginia.

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee has stripped funding for the study from its proposed state budget plan, which comes up for a vote in the full Democratic-controlled Senate on Thursday.

That vote will hardly be the last say on the plan, which is expected to remain alive in the House’s budget bill, which also contains language to create a stadium authority. Budget negotiations typically carry on through the final days of the legislative session, which this year is scheduled to conclude Feb. 25. The governor also has a chance after that to amend it.

But the Senate opposition suggests that the Commanders face even longer odds than last year, when a much more ambitious plan to attract the team got off the ground with support from Youngkin (R) and both chambers — only to collapse as off-field controversies dogged the team.

“We’re not begging for them,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), who chairs the Finance and Appropriations subcommittee that recommended nixing the funding. “If they want to approach us with a transaction, sure, have at it. But I’m not setting taxpayer money aside to do that.”

Even the Republican-led House, although more open to the plan, seems to be proceeding with caution. The football stadium authority called for in the House budget would operate under tighter restrictions than the authority proposed last year. The General Assembly must sign off on any deal, for instance, and the team would face a July 1, 2024, deadline for notifying the state of its interest in building a stadium.

A Commanders official declined to comment on the record.

“The governor will continue to work with the legislature to ensure that the best interests of Virginia’s taxpayers are always put first regarding any possible stadium deal,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter.

The budget plan that Youngkin rolled out in December included $500,000 to “develop relevant capabilities, conduct planning, and evaluate potential economic incentives related to the relocation of the Washington Commanders to the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The plan was part of a package of amendments he proposed to the General Assembly for the second year of the state’s two-year budget. The money would not come until 2024, a delay that might leave time for a change in team ownership.

Commanders owner Daniel Snyder — the subject of NFL and congressional investigations into accusations of sexual and workplace misconduct that he denies — signaled last year that he is exploring the sale of all or part of the team.

The Commanders are committed to playing at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., until 2027 but can stay longer. They are hoping to build a new facility somewhere in the region: Maryland, Virginia or D.C.

The stadium search, which flamed out last summer, seems to be stuck in neutral while Snyder continues to explore a sale of the franchise. In late December, several groups submitted initial bids but none reached Snyder’s target threshold of $7 billion. For now, Virginia’s lack of a stadium authority isn’t hurting it in a competition with Maryland and D.C.

In Maryland, there appears to be no momentum to better the state’s $400 million package from last year, and primarily because of disagreements among local leaders, D.C. has still not been able to make headway in trying to gain control of the RFK Stadium site from the federal government.

But if a new owner buys the Commanders, the competition between the jurisdictions could heat up quickly. Some Virginia legislators see that as an argument for pushing ahead with the study.

“Personally, I don’t see the harm in gathering more information so that if an opportunity presents itself over the next 12 months, the commonwealth can be prepared to have further dialogue about the issue,” said Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), whose district includes the area in Prince William County that had emerged as a potential location last year.

But others seem more dug in against the plan.

“We don’t need to spend $500,000 to tell us that giving stadium tax breaks to a billionaire would lead to horrendous traffic and is not in the best interests of Virginia,” said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

In last year’s session, Virginia’s House and Senate initially embraced a plan to create a football stadium authority to oversee the financing and construction of a stadium that would anchor a massive retail and entertainment complex.

The original plan called for the state to give up about $1 billion in tax revenue generated from the broader “mini-city” development to finance the stadium. Negotiators later whittled the state’s contribution down to about $300 million before walking entirely away from the plan amid growing team controversies.