The Lesson of the MLS Vote

There will be many post-mortems after Proposition 2, which would have committed the City of St. Louis to building a soccer stadium and spending over $100M during the course of 30 years. Here's mine. This post isn't about what voters should or shouldn't have done. Its just about what they did, and more importantly, why.

The failure of Prop 2 to pass does not have much to do with soccer. My sense was that voters generally though it might be "nice" to have an MLS team, but it wasn't essential either way. But the ongoing hangover from the Rams saga (not, in fact, the Rams leaving. But the sad, cynical, and financially negligent way certain members of local government begged and pleaded with the NFL to make them stay) is what meant this soccer vote would have a stiff headwind that never abated.

When you ask voters to raise taxes for "wants" like a soccer stadium (and lets face it, a "want" that is a fairly narrow special interest) you rely on voters trusting their local government to be sure the proposal is responsible. It takes political capital to pass these things, and after the NFL stadium fiasco, that capital was gone.

Recall that St. Louis taxpayers, just two years ago, were being asked to build the NFL and a billionaire owner, a new football palace when the last one we built wasn't even paid off yet. Then recall that proponents of this plan conspired with the mayor's office to litigate away the voters ability to have the final say on the plan via a referendum. Then recall that just like this MLS stadium, St. Louis County taxpayers wouldn't have to participate financially. It was just on us, a city still struggling with 60 years of population decline, to pay for a plan that was, as a friend put it, "financial pornography." Voters got their say on the Mayor's office approach to the NFL yesterday, they just got it with the MLS vote.

When a past government agreed to one of the worst professional sports leases in history after building the Dome, they paid little attention to the people who would be left cleaning up the mess 25 years later. Well here we are, we are those people. The terrible deals struck in the past inform the decisions people make today.

If certain influential St. Louisans wanted an MLS team, the strategy in 2015 should have been this: We're cutting our losses with the NFL. We're not spending another dime there, and we're applying our efforts to MLS. That would have taken some political courage, but it also would have avoided the very, very sour taste the NFL experience left with voters. I know the people behind the MLS effort simply do not understand how angry many residents are with the money wasted on the NFL and backroom scheme to avoid a referendum. The political capital to pass an MLS vote was squandered on the NFL.

It has to be noted that Prop 2 faired the worst of all the questions on the ballot. Voters supported a higher sales tax for better transit and other local services. They supported (although not at the 2/3rds level required to pass) a higher property tax to help save vacant buildings. We supported a property tax increase last year for school funding. And voters in St. Louis County supported by a huge margin more money for police. The obvious conclusion is that people support funding the basic needs in their community. They want good services. They want a safer place to live. They want investment in basic infrastructure, and they are willing to pay for it. But efforts to fund two stadiums in two years seem woefully out of touch to voters living in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. You can hear people saying, "This again? Give me a break."

But its also abundantly clear that residents in the City of St. Louis are aware that regional amenities require regional funding efforts. If we can't do it regionally, there will be many things in the future we just can't do. End of story. If residents of St. Louis County wanted an MLS team, they should have worked politically to participate in funding it. They didn't, and that's on them. Our region can provide better, more equitable services and amenities to all its residents. But we have to do it together. There literally is no other way. And if we don't, there will be other "failures" or "missed opportunities" in the future. The only way forward for our region is to act like one.