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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: What do gubernatorial contenders think about Nixon's stadium push?

The five GOP contenders for governor: Peter Kinder, Eric Greitens, Catherine Hanaway, Bob Dixon and John Brunner
St. Louis Public Radio file photos
The five GOP contenders for governor: Peter Kinder, Eric Greitens, Catherine Hanaway, Bob Dixon and John Brunner

It’s fair to say that Missouri state Sen. Rob Schaaf has been a thorn in Gov. Jay Nixon’s side over the proposed riverfront stadium in St. Louis.

The St. Joseph Republican was one of the first members of the legislature to raise serious alarm about Nixon issuing state bonds for the $1 billion project without a legislative or statewide vote. More than 20 senatorsand some key House leaders have threatened to kill any state appropriation to pay off the stadium bonds if Nixon follows through.

“Especially given all the effort that I’ve gone through to make sure that make sure everybody knows,” Schaaf said in a telephone interview. “I mean, we have gone out of way to tell everybody in the media … to tell these people that when they buy the bonds, they’re buying worthless pieces of paper. That’s what they’re buying. Because we’re not paying! It’s that simple.”

Once January 2017 hits though, Nixon will be out of office – and either Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster or one of five Republican contenders will be in the gubernatorial hot seat over the stadium.

Assuming St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke is unsuccessful in relocating his team to Los Angeles, Missouri’s next chief executive will have some big, tangible decisions to make in regards to the potential facility – especially since lawmakers like Schaaf will still be around:

Schaaf says the next governor’s opinion on the proposed stadium matters both from a practical and philosophical perspective, adding it’s “critically important to know how seriously a governor would take his or her oath of office to uphold the Constitution.
“If I were the governor, I would not put [the bond payments] in the budget,” Schaaf said. “And then at my State of the State address, I would say ‘Listen – I’m not putting that in the budget because it’s bad government. And I’m not about bad government – I’m about good government.’ And then I would talk about it.

“But you know, I’m not the governor,” he added, a bit wryly.

What would you do?

Schaaf is clearly not running for governor (or anything, since he terminated his campaign account after he won his last term in the Missouri Senate). But he may be onto something about the stadium playing a big role in the impending campaign to replace Nixon. 

Attorney General Chris Koster is the likely Democratic nominee for governor.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Attorney General Chris Koster is the likely Democratic nominee for governor.

This reporter sent out similar campaign inquires on Thursday to Koster and the five GOP gubernatorial candidates. The questions were basically: What do you think of the idea of issuing bonds for the stadium without a statewide or legislative vote? If Nixon extends the bonds, would you include the bond payments in your budget? And if the bond payments for the new stadium made it through the legislature, would you take them out with a line-item veto?

By Monday afternoon, four of the candidates provided their answers. GOP contender John Brunner had not sent a statement yet. And while this reporter couldn't connect with him over the phone, state Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, has signed onto Schaaf’s letter stating he would “vigorously oppose any proposal to appropriate state taxpayer dollars to debt service on a new stadium that is not authorized by a prior vote of the public or the Missouri General Assembly.”

Attorney General Chris Koster​ provided us with the following response to our questions about the project:

“First, if advocates for the project cannot offer a solution that is revenue positive to the state of Missouri, it should not be considered. If the project is revenue positive to the state, it is important for the legislature during the upcoming general assembly session to have an opportunity to record their views.”

Former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway also delivered St. Louis Public Radio a one-sentence statement responding to the idea of issuing stadium bonds without some sort of vote: “The Governor should not by executive fiat commit hundreds of millions of dollars to a new football stadium without a vote of the legislature or general public.”

GOP contender Eric Greitens’ response was a bit lengthier:

“This stadium scandal is the epitome of what's wrong with Jefferson City's culture of corruption. Without a single hearing and without any public oversight, Gov. Nixon and a small group of St. Louis insiders concocted a plan to spend $415 million in state taxpayer money over the next 36 years to build a stadium for a billionaire who doesn't even want it.
“I oppose welfare for billionaires. I oppose Gov. Nixon's plan - and I think all Missourians who care about good government should. Rather than an open and honest debate, Gov. Nixon has totally disregarded Missouri taxpayers. In this case, there are decisions being negotiated in NFL offices in New York City - and only disclosed after the fact to the people actually footing the bill. I'm confident that the legislature will reject Gov. Nixon's bad deal. They should zero out the current line item for stadium funding and wait until we have a governor they can trust not to burden generations of Missouri's children with stadium debt.” 

During a telephone interview, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder noted he had voted against issuing tax credits for the project as a member of the Missouri Development Finance Board. He also questioned whether “a reputable bond counsel would sign their names to the issuance of these bonds,” and also wondered whether there’s “some sap insurance company out there that would insure these bonds when there are this many red lights flashing and sirens blazing?”

Kinder, who spent 12 years in the Missouri Senate, said, “You can like the Jones Dome or hate the Jones Dome or think it was a mistake. But you know what? It was done according to proper legal procedure. It was a bill introduced in the legislature. It was debated in both houses. There were hearings on it. It was subject to a vote in both chambers. It went to the governor, who I think quite reluctantly signed it into law. That is the way it should be done.

“They should not take that 25-year approval of the original deal on the Jones Dome and say that we can by the act of one, solitary individual and his minions in the executive branch commit the state to 30 more years of debt payments for a new stadium,” he added.

But Kinder said he would have a hard time getting behind a push not to pay off state debt, adding that: “I’m a constitutionalist.”

“And anyone who reads our constitution sees one thing first and foremost in a [budgeting requirement] that is even before number two, which is the provision of a free public education to every kid in the state. And that’s the payment of public debt,” Kinder said. “So we are constrained to pay public debt. I am sounding the alarm before that ever gets to that point and saying that I stand with lawmakers who insist, I believe correctly, that they have to have a say in this and that the governor cannot do this unilaterally.”

Dogs and cats living together!

While Schaaf and other Republicans have boisterously spoken out against Nixon’s stadium plan, the governor got some support from an unexpected source. 

Dave Spence, center, came out for a plan to build a new stadium in St. Louis.
Credit File photo by Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio
Dave Spence, center, came out for a plan to build a new stadium in St. Louis.

Dave Spence, a St. Louis area businessman who squared off against Nixon in the 2012 gubernatorial election, penned an op-ed in the Missouri Times last week urging his Republican brethren to support the stadium. He declared that he was ready to build “our next Gateway Arch.”

“Some make the argument that no public money should be used. I get it but let’s talk about the facts. We offered Boeing billions to move here and we give incentives for growth to many companies throughout our state,” Spence wrote. “We continue to waste dollars of tax credits by being inefficient and having too many people take cuts of them. Why would we squawk about something that is self-funding? My point is this, let’s get this done.”

It remains to be seen whether Spence’s arguments will resonate with GOP lawmakers. But he did suggest probably the best path forward to getting the stadium built: Get NFL owners to block Kroenke’s relocation request and somehow get him to sell the Rams to “local ownership.” Whether that actually could happen is a very, very open question, but it may be the most tantalizing hypothetical within a stadium saga chalked full of "what ifs."

 On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.