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Downstate lawmakers make noise over Bills stadium, but 'you pick your battles'

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Bills Patriots pregame

Empty seats collect snow before the start of the Buffalo Bills game against the New England Patriots Dec. 6, 2021, at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park.

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Behind closed doors somewhere within the New York State Capitol, the numbers for Albany's contribution to a new Buffalo Bills stadium are being finalized.

Lots of hypothetical figures enter the discussion as an April 1 budget deadline approaches, prompting pushback about the precise numbers from Gov. Kathy Hochul and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. But the deal in which New York State taxpayers will substantially finance a proposed $1.4 billion facility in Orchard Park for the NFL franchise is sure to cost at least hundreds of millions of dollars.

And not everybody in New York State government is happy about it.

"I would not vote for this," said State Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, chairwoman of the powerful Finance Committee, who emphasizes she has not seen any final deal. "I don't believe, personally, that taxpayer money should provide for stadium ownership by private entities who have enough money to take care of it themselves.

"I didn't know when," she added, "but I knew in my heart I would be speaking out against this deal."

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Nobody predicts the State Legislature will nix a new budget should it include a stadium agreement. And most Albany insiders, including Hochul, believe the state, county and Bills will soon reach a deal. But signs point to considerable opposition to providing "a billion dollars for billionaires," referring to Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula and a monetary amount that may or may not prove accurate.

The Buffalo News has projected that the public could be asked to contribute approximately $1 billion, or around 73% of the construction costs, similar to stadium deals in smaller markets. And that raises concern among those who will vote on the proposal.

"Historically, even in generous New York State, the largest share of any stadium paid for with government money is 12% for the Yankees," Krueger claimed.

And she points out that the billion-dollar figure may be part of negotiation "games" that makes some lower figure like $500 million seem acceptable.

"And then we give an NFL team owner who we assume is very wealthy an enormous amount of money so he can make even more money," she said.

Progressive Democrats have wielded more influence

Much of the outcry stems from left-leaning progressive Democrats in the Legislature who have asserted themselves more and more in recent years. They insist that because Albany's budget process is considerably eased in 2022 by an influx of federal money, more attention should focus on core needs like education and homelessness.

State Sen. Jabari Brisport, D-Brooklyn, says the Bills' ask of New York State represents "a greedy billionaire trying to get a billion dollars." And he resents the overarching threat of moving the team to another state if Pegula fails to get enough money from the state.

"It's a sad state of affairs in New York if we don't call his bluff," he said. "Threatening the State of New York with taking his ball and leaving if he doesn't get what he wants? It's ridiculous."

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams will represent the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party as he competes in this year's gubernatorial primary. Williams said Friday he also wants the Bills to remain in Buffalo, but harbors little enthusiasm for state spending on such a scale.

"Most of these large incentives going to billionaires generally do not have a return, especially for people who need it most," he said. "Still we are seeing our leaders giving one of the largest amounts ever, and to another billionaire."

No questions are ever asked, he said, about return on investment for expenditures on child care, affordable housing or gun violence prevention.

Working Families: 'It's a conversation we want to have'

The left leaning Working Families Party has also weighed in this election year as it grants endorsements sought by most Democrats throughout the state. Party spokesman Ravi Mangla asserts that direct public expenditures for previous projects like Yankee Stadium represented approximately 17% of the total cost, while estimates run as high as 75% for a new Bills stadium (though opinions vary on the final government cost of the Bronx ballpark). Mangla calls such an increase "shocking."

"We want to see the Bills get a new stadium and stay in Buffalo," he said, "but to give $1 billion to a family with a billion dollars already does not seem like a smart or prudent use of public funds."

Mangla said Working Families did not require opposition to such public financing while doling out endorsements this year.

"But it's a conversation we want to have with our legislators," he said, to ensure against "augmenting the empire of a billionaire."

Opposition is also surfacing on the other side of New York's political spectrum. State Conservative Chairman Gerard Kassar said his party also sought no litmus test against public financing of stadiums for its nod. 

"But the party generally opposes use of taxpayer funds to support construction of sports stadiums at any level," he said.

Concerns but little opposition in WNY delegation

Of course, little opposition to public funding for a new stadium surfaces in Western New York or most of upstate, where passions for the Bills run high – especially in an election year. And local officials with top positions in Albany, like Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, are expected to play key roles in rounding up the necessary legislative support. 

Assemblyman Patrick B. Burke, D-Orchard Park, is among those concerned about such state spending. A few days ago he acknowledged that spending hundreds of millions of public dollars for private entities remains "offensive" to many voters. But at this point he will not oppose the concept.

"The Bills are big part of the cultural identity of Buffalo and I understand why we need it," he said.

Still, Burke and others suggest a "community benefits agreement" first proposed last summer by Buffalo mayoral candidate India B. Walton may help justify the huge expenditure. She called then for a legally binding pact, citing a Pittsburgh example associated with a new hockey arena that included $8 million for neighborhood improvements resulting in amenities such as a grocery story and community center.

Burke suggests public transportation enhancements to the new stadium be included in the deal. Or maybe the Bills could sponsor sports management programs at the adjacent South Campus of Erie Community College in Orchard Park. He anticipates tough questions from his New York City colleagues, but promises pushback.

"When the New York City members start chirping I'll be the first to say 'Where were you when we spent that kind of money" downstate? he said.

Krueger: 'You pick your battles'

Even the most vocal opponents of the stadium deal expect it will succeed, especially if included as part of a $216 billion budget.

"I'm not going to hold up the budget over this, throw my body against the podium and demand all action cease," Krueger said. "You pick your battles."

But she promised that a new approach to economic development she hopes the Senate will champion should involve renewed scrutiny of such stadium deals.

"NFL teams have this strategy of playing teams against each other," she said. "Somebody has to say 'uncle' and not fall for this."

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