Tuesday, February 9, 2016

What Really Happened with the Texas Rangers and Eminent Domain

One sign that the 2016 presidential race is nuts: the Republican frontrunner says he loves eminent domain. Donald Trump defended his seizure of land for the "common good" in Saturday's debate against Jeb Bush, who argued that eminent domain should only be used for important infrastructure projects and public needs—and that Trump's use of it didn't qualify. (Trump tried to use eminent domain to evict an elderly woman in Atlantic City when she refused his offer of $250,000 so he could tear down her house to build a casino parking lot. Trump lost the case.)

But in interviews since the debate, Trump has called Bush a hypocrite: it turns out that none other than George W. Bush, the former president and Jeb's brother, used eminent domain to get Globe Life Park built when he was co-owner of the Texas Rangers. People are now pushing back against Trump by drawing a distinction between the use of eminent domain for the public good or for private gain. Allegedly, Trump tried to use it for private gain, but its use to build a baseball stadium was in the public good—which would be OK under Jeb's parameters.

The question is whether a baseball stadium is really in the public good. This, of course, goes back to the thorny issue of publicly funded stadiums. Globe Life Park (formerly known as Rangers Ballpark in Arlington) was a publicly funded stadium and, to this day, is owned by the City of Arlington, so technically, yes, its use of eminent domain was for a public project. But, obviously, the Texas Rangers baseball corporation has profited tremendously from its construction, and many people question whether stadiums really deliver the economic booster shot to their communities that teams claim. Listen to the story of the Rangers' ballpark and decide for yourself whether it was a public project or primarily for private gain.

In 1990, unhappy with the ugly and deteriorating Arlington Stadium, the Rangers threatened to leave Arlington—threats that eventually convinced the city government to cover 71% of the costs ($135 million out of $191 million) of building a new ballpark. The deal they struck called for the city to raise the sales tax by half a cent to go toward construction. On January 19, 1991, almost two-thirds of city voters approved a referendum to do just that, giving the project the stamp of public approval it needed. The results of that referendum allowed the former Rangers president to tell the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in defense of Bush and in offense of Trump, that "we never had eminent domain—the city of Arlington did."

Indeed, the Texas legislature presently approved the creation of the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority (ASFDA), a public city agency with the power of eminent domain—but also an entity whose actions were directed by the Rangers. The ASFDA—or, to be more specific, the realtor it contracted, who happened to be a part owner of the Rangers—went about setting prices of the parcels the Rangers wanted to use for the stadium and attendant facilities like parking lots. If the homeowners didn't agree to the ASFDA's offer, the ASFDA seized the land using eminent domain. One property owner, the Mathes family, sued and won a $7.2 million payout, which, after a legal dispute between the ballclub and city, was eventually paid by the Rangers.

Today, while the city of Arlington did get to keep its baseball team, the Rangers receive almost all the revenue generated by the stadium. While the project was approved by voters and managed by the government, the Rangers were ultimately behind every move it made, and it is clear that eminent domain was used to achieve a corporation's private financial ends. It's an open question whether W.'s profits from eminent domain should be held against Jeb, but the Rangers certainly did benefit from its application.

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