"Cubs Tax" For Spring Training Park? Separating Truth From Fiction

Jeff Carlick /Allsport/Getty Images

Many lies are being told about the proposed Cubs/Mesa spring training deal. It should be no surprise that many of them come from political lobbyists.

So where does the Cubs' spring training proposal stand today, a day after an Arizona House commmittee approved a bill that would raise rental-car taxes and put a surcharge on Cactus League tickets?

There's a tremendous amount of misinformation being passed around, including the almost ludicrous statement that this might cause the Cubs to start looking toward Florida again. To be fair, that Ballpark Digest article goes on to say, correctly, that Bud Selig's newfound antipathy to these fees is disingenuous and ridiculous:

Enter the front offices of the Diamondbacks, Rangers, A's, Brewers (ironically) and other Cactus League teams, who argue a surcharge on their fans would be unfair, even though they're mostly suckling at the same public teat (car-rental taxes) as the Cubs when it comes to financing improved spring-training facilities. Why should a Rangers fan pay for a new Cubs facility?

This is a load of crap, of course. The Chicago Cubs are the only reliable draw in the Cactus League these days; Cubs fans will descend in the Valley of the Sun and see as many games as they can, even on a day when the Cubs aren't playing. The Cubs annually draw the best in the Cactus League, and any away game involving the Cubs is sure to have at least a couple of thousand extra fans in the house. Go to Maryvale Baseball Park on a day when the Cubs are in town, and the Cubs fans will outnumber the Brewers fans. Only the San Francisco Giants are as reliable a draw as the Cubs, and Giants fans in recent years have shown less enthusiasm for following the team on the road, unless San Fran is playing at Phoenix Muni or (ironically) Mesa.

Several months ago, Selig told the Cubs he was fine with the ticket surcharge, which is one of the primary reasons the Cubs and the city of Mesa added this to the proposal. It should be no surprise to anyone who has followed Bud during his baseball career that he's talked out of both sides of his mouth on this issue.

The current brouhaha, apparently, comes from a lobbyist hired by the Diamondbacks -- who, for some reason, seem to have it in for the Cubs deal, even though they aren't subject to the surcharge, don't have any fans that come in from out of town to rent cars, and have no problem having the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community, who they don't consider taxpayers, pay for their own brand spanking new complex that's opening in 2011. Other lobbyists hired by MLB and the 14 other Cactus League teams have been spreading the lie that these taxes and surcharges would only benefit the Cubs.

The truth can be found, somewhat buried, in this East Valley Tribune article:

Despite the opposition, the House Commerce Committee approved a bill Wednesday that includes an 8 percent surcharge and adding $1 to the existing Maricopa County rental car tax of $2.5O.

The cost to a spring training fan would be about $2.5O per admission with the ticket surcharge and if the person rented a car, said bill sponsor Rep. John McComish, R-Ahwatukee Foothills. Fans probably won't even notice the additional amount of money they'll pay, he said.

"You can't get a Coke, I don't think, for $2.5O," McComish said.

The bill would raise about $81 million over 25 years, and $58 million of that would go to the Cubs' Wrigleyville West complex proposed in east Mesa. McComish characterized the bill as something all 15 Cactus League teams would benefit from because the Cubs are the top spring-training draw. Also, other teams could tap into the funds when they need to upgrade or build new complexes, he said.

This has been the case with the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority since it was created by vote of the Arizona legislature in 2000. Note from this quote that the recession has hit the ASTA just as hard as many other businesses and state agencies:

Tourism taxes have been used in the past to help finance pro sports venues in the region. Maricopa County voters narrowly approved Proposition 3O2 in 2OOO, imposing an extra 1 percent hotel bed-tax and 3.23 percent car rental charge to finance construction of University of Phoenix Stadium and Cactus League stadiums. The recession has hurt tourism, resulting in a $1O million shortfall for the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, which manages Prop. 3O2 money. That means the cupboard is bare for a new Cubs venue.

Sean Noble, president of political consulting firm Noble Associates, said there is general support for keeping the Cubs in Arizona, and rental car taxes are viewed as charges on tourists.

"Voters will likely view it as taxing somebody else to get something they want: the Cubs staying in Mesa," he said.

Further, there is already a "surcharge" of sorts being imposed by several Cactus League teams when the Cubs are the visitors. At Camelback Ranch -- home of the Dodgers and White Sox, the latter of which has an owner who first voiced opposition to the surcharge -- tickets to games against the Cubs (and only the Cubs) cost anywhere from $2 to $5 more than tickets to games against all other teams. The Giants also have a $3 to $6 surcharge on "feature" games; among those is a game against the Cubs on March 30.

The fact is: the Cubs do drive the Cactus League engine. Cubs fans consistently provide revenue to virtually every team in the league by showing up at Cactus League road games (at Maryvale, for example, when the Cubs are the visitors, crowds typically are about twice what the Brewers draw for other visiting teams). This fact sheet from the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority (link opens .pdf) specifically states that the ASTA's funding priorities and responsibilities include:

Awarding monies to renovate existing or construct new Cactus League spring training baseball facilities in Maricopa County

Which is exactly what will happen with any additional funds raised by the new rental-car tax and ticket surcharge. Here's a list of Cactus League projects the ASTA has helped in the past -- interestingly, absolutely zero of them have benefitted the Cubs, and nine Cactus League teams have reaped stadium benefits from the ASTA, including many that are now complaining about the Cubs being helped. Pretty hypocritical, if you ask me.

Reiterating, with emphasis, a quote from the East Valley Tribune article above:

The bill would raise about $81 million over 25 years, and $58 million of that would go to the Cubs' Wrigleyville West complex proposed in east Mesa. McComish characterized the bill as something all 15 Cactus League teams would benefit from because the Cubs are the top spring-training draw. Also, other teams could tap into the funds when they need to upgrade or build new complexes, he said.

"All 15 Cactus League teams would benefit". Not just the Cubs, and not all the money would go to the Cubs ("other teams could tap into the funds when they need to upgrade or build new complexes"). I'm sure the exact figures in this legislation will change before it comes to a final vote. But it's clear to me that the entire Cactus League, and all of Maricopa County, would benefit from it. Economic times may be difficult now, but there's no doubt that eventually, the economy will improve, and when it does, I believe the voters of the city of Mesa, Maricopa County, and the state of Arizona will be happy they approved this legislation in 2010.

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