The next time you’re tempted to base your beliefs purely on political stereotypes, keep in mind that it was a former Democratic U.S. senator who stood, basically alone at first, against a huge government spending program financed by public debt.
That would be David Pryor, University of Arkansas trustee and leader of the opposition against a $120 million bond issue to help pay for adding 3,000 premium seats to Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Pryor’s was one of two votes last Thursday – the other being Cliff Gibson’s – against the bond issue. The debt, which rises to $186 million counting interest and fees, will also pay for rounding out the stadium, adding a video board, updating the Broyles Athletic Center, and other improvements. The bond issue will be repaid over 20 years through ticket revenues and is not expected to affect students, who, unlike at the state’s other four-year universities, are not charged a fee for athletics.
The business case for the expansion isn’t unreasonable. The University of Arkansas Athletic Department is well managed and one of a relatively small number across the country that pays for itself. Athletic Director Jeff Long said the department has already secured millions of dollars in commitments for those premium seats. To be competitive in major college football, a program must invest resources into taking care of its wealthy fans. They’re the kind who donate extra money.
Still, I’m with Pryor on this one, for three reasons.
– It’s public debt. Neither taxpayers nor students are supposedly on the hook, but if the financial arrangement isn’t working, somebody must pay that money back. While the state’s Revenue Stabilization Act supposedly forces a balanced budget each year, the truth is that the state of Arkansas has billions of dollars in debt, and the University of Arkansas is a state institution.
The other thing about debt is that it becomes your master. Future decisions will be made with this bond issue in mind. The team must keep winning to fill the stadium to pay for the bond issue, so Coach Bret Bielema had better keep engineering these late game heroics. The need to raise revenue for the bond issue will be one more reason for the Razorbacks to stop playing games in Little Rock after 2018 when the current contract ends.
– It’s regressive government financing. The bond issue is adding expensive football seats – suites, semi-private loge boxes, club seats – that are being financed by the fans who buy regular seats. Those regular seats already are priced at just about the limit for a middle class fan – for nonconference games, $35 for upper level seats and $55 for lower level ones, with conference games priced higher. Taking your family to a game already sets you back $250, and the bond issue payments will raise the cost.
– It sends the wrong message and allocates resources in the wrong direction. Pryor called this the largest financial commitment the state has ever made for higher education, and it’s for a football stadium. In January, while the Board of Trustees was advancing the stadium project, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences begged for $97 million to renovate its aging facilities. So far, that money has not been found. What should be the higher priority: the football stadium, or the hospital? The entity that teaches college students to be football players, or the entity that teaches medical students to be doctors?
The Razorbacks are a tie that binds, and I’m glad they beat TCU Saturday. But sometimes this state forgets that the University of Arkansas is a school, not a football team. The vote by the board of trustees is not a scandal, because the money is probably going to be there and the Athletic Department has a history of good financial stewardship. Still, $120 million – actually, $186 million? Woo, pig sooie, but whew, that’s a lot of debt for football seats.