Let A Plebiscite Decide Stadium Issue

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

Here we go again. Talk of another publicly funded major sports complex is back, this time prompted by bad news from the Winnipeg Football Club. The Bombers are losing money again, and are arguing that future profits depend on a new, state-of-the art stadium.

“So you can pay now or pay later,” reports Randy Turner (“Bombers campaign for new stadium,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 19). The paper’s readers are unmoved by this special pleading. A Free Press straw poll the next day had 72 percent of them not thinking a brand new stadium will fix the team’s problems. If the Bombers want public subsidies for the project, they’ll have to convince a lot more taxpayers.

In 2004, a consortium announced plans for a $165-million football stadium at Winnipeg’s west edge, and it seemed to have all its ducks in a row. The Red River Ex wanted to fulfill its unmet goal to operate the venue year round. The Bombers, used to passing the hat among politicians, dreamed about a big-city, covered palace. CanadInns, the hotel chain whose name is already plastered above the old stadium, a perfectly sound building, had grand ambitions for a new hotel with a water park.

The consortium received $125,000, half of the cost of a “feasibility study,” from the Canada-Manitoba Economic Partnership Agreement, a political slush fund. Supposed to report months ago, that plan fell apart, a collateral victim of the collapse of the Crocus Fund. No shovels ever turned. Whatever new scheme comes along, we can count on one thing: They’re going to come to all three levels of government with their hands out.

Despite ample research showing that “sports socialism” does not boost the overall economy, hype and emotion from the interests who will reap concentrated benefits from a new stadium may persuade beleaguered politicians to fold to the pressure. We can expect the usual sectarian bickering, between football boosters and the general public more concerned with roads that are falling apart. No matter who prevails, many folks will be upset.

There’s another way to defuse issues like this, one that worked well when our city was clearly an ascendant, successful city. It’s a formal, democratic mechanism for decision-making, one with a proven track record. For a large part of the last century, the people of Winnipeg had the power to approve or disapprove such spending, through money bylaws.

Remember the angst over downtown’s MTS Centre, the interminable delays in planning and construction? Contrast that with the history of the building it replaced, the Winnipeg Arena. In 1954, building inspectors condemned the aging Ampitheatre at Broadway and Osborne. Only a month later, the City asked voters to approve spending $2 million for a new building. About 11,500 said “yes” and 7,500 said “no.” Exactly eighteen months later, the new building opened for business. Money bylaws not only build accountability into the process, they make it efficient.

The mechanism is in place. Section 120 of the current City of Winnipeg Act still contains a provision for plebiscites. Unfortunately, it now says that “the Council may submit any question” to the voters, but only for “an expression of opinion” that “is not binding on the Council.” That’s too bad.

Life was still complicated when Winnipeg used money bylaws to approve capital spending on large projects. But money bylaws clarified the process by allowing us to vote such ideas up or down. It’s a far superior method to the backroom dealing and manipulation of political budgets that replaced it.

Between 1899 and 1968, when the last such measures appeared on the civic ballot, hundreds of questions were put to a vote. In some years, as many as fifteen referenda were offered up. Although some dealt with quaint issues like coloured margarine, daylight savings time and Sunday entertainment, most involved public spending.

Money bylaws divided quite neatly into three categories, health and safety, recreation and infrastructure. Almost all proposals in the first—for things like hospitals, fire halls and baths to sanitize immigrants—passed quickly. Measures to pay for parks and sports facilities usually fared well, another expression of the values of voters.

Infrastructure spending was another matter. Proposals for school spending usually succeeded, but money for streets, bridges, underpasses and overpasses, gas works, electricity lines and power plants, water and sewer lines was just as likely to be turned down as approved. The Disraeli Freeway, for instance, met with defeat twice before it finally got a green light in 1958.

Although many politicians resented these intrusions—indeed, the law that created Unicity axed money bylaws—they benefited from the process. Plebiscites required them to hone their rhetorical and argumentative skills. Once sanctioned, projects moved forward quickly. Democratic virtue replaced the self-serving wheeling and dealing of smoke-filled rooms. Freed after 1972 from the constraint of voter approval, civic politicians racked up more than a billion dollars in debt, with massive service charges that still hobble city budgets and services.

Take a look at Winnipeg’s history of money bylaws. Almost no measures were put to the voters during times of national emergency, like the World Wars and the Great Depression. Throughout other years, their history provides evidence of a vibrant and thriving democracy.

Let’s have an open debate on a new stadium, and then put it up for a vote.