Truth hurts

Last week city council member Laura Miller barely had resumed her chair at the briefing table when the mayor seized the floor, followed quickly by several of her fellow council members, all eager to apologize for the attack she had just made on Dallas 2012 Olympics promoter Tom Luce.

She had called him a liar. The rest of the council seemed stunned by her lack of diplomacy. The rule of the council is that public speakers can't call council members names, and Mayor Ron Kirk, whose mother was in the audience for the first time, scolded Miller that members of the council aren't supposed to personally abuse the speakers, either.

But even in apologizing for her, Luce's defenders on the city council seemed to say Miller's real sin had been telling the truth in public.

In their defense of Luce, the mayor and other council members essentially proved Miller's point: The game is to quietly get all of the ducks in a row in Austin, then when it's almost a fait accompli hit the taxpayers with a three-point squeeze: 1) we've almost got the Olympics, 2) a public tax-backed or tax-supported funding mechanism is in place, 3) the only thing left is for you to vote for it.

The underlying issue from the beginning has been whether Dallas will ever have to divert significant tax money and bond money, now or later, from basic city services to the Olympics. So far, the people who want the Olympics here--led by The Dallas Morning News, the locally headquartered airlines, and sports venue owners including Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks--have insisted a 2012 Olympics in Dallas will be a "private sector initiative," with the clear implication that taxpayers won't be taxed for it.

In particular, the Dallas Citizens Council, a private business and political group that doesn't reveal its membership, said it would pay the entire cost of $3 million to $5 million for the bid "application" (the lobbying to get it) entirely out of its members' pockets.

At last week's council briefing--with Olympics promoter Tom Luce standing at the podium a few feet from her--Miller dramatically marched around the council table handing out copies of a memo from the Dallas Olympics committee's own lawyer, revealing some very confusing things about this "private" venture.

Dallas Olympics backers, according to the memo from Ray Hutchison, have been lobbying in Austin for a state tax bill that would reimburse the Dallas Citizens Council from public coffers for all or part of the cost of the bid application.

According to the memo, the taxpayers of Dallas, acting through the city or county government or through some kind of "sports authority" created in the future, would be authorized by the state to build roads, stadiums--whatever is needed--and pay for it with bond money, general tax revenue--whatever it takes.

Before handing out the Hutchison memo, Miller had walked Luce through a careful course of questioning: Was the Dallas 2012 committee seeking any kind of public tax-supported funding mechanism for the games in its dealings with the Texas Legislature?

"It's not public financing for the bid," Luce said. "If the city is lucky enough to get the Olympics, in my judgment, there will of course be the need for current service--police, fire, and garbage, etc."

Would anyone ever want to use the power of eminent domain to condemn private property for the games?

"I don't have the foggiest notion," Luce said.
Miller asked him, "Do you foresee perhaps a municipality using the power to issue bonds or notes to cover any cost of utilities or infrastructure?"

"Miss Miller, I don't have any idea," Luce said.
Luce was especially adamant in insisting that the 2012 Committee, informally an extension of the Citizens Council, was neither seeking nor would it accept any repayment of the site-selection application costs.

When she had concluded a long list of questions, Miller then presented the mayor and each council member with a photocopy of a memo Hutchison had prepared for state Rep. Art Reyna of San Antonio. Reyna, whose city is pursuing the 2007 Pan American games, has taken the lead in formulating state support for Olympic bids. Hutchison's memo, under the title "minimum findings by the Legislature," outlined the following minimum terms for Reyna to consider if Dallas wins the games:

* The state would negotiate a contract with the 2012 Committee by which the state would agree to re-pay the committee "so much Site Selection Application costs."

* Several years before the games themselves, the state should begin setting aside a portion of the sales tax collected in the Dallas area to help pay for the games.

* "Participating cities and counties and regional sports authorities (would) have the power to contract, to sue and be sued and to condemn property and land in connection with the games."

* The city or sports authority would "have the power to issue bonds, notes and other securities deemed necessary to construct new games venues, to repair, expand and improve existing sports venues for use as games venues."

* If and when Dallas does sell bonds to pay for the games, it can pledge as collateral for those bonds "any revenues, taxes and other sources authorized by any other law, subject to such requirements for elections as may be required by other law."

Luce told the council that he did not support Hutchison's memo. Speaking to reporters after the briefing, Luce at first hedged on whether he had ever even seen the memo. But Hutchison himself later told reporters that he and Luce had discussed the memo in a conference call before Hutchison sent it to Reyna in Austin.

Still later in the week, Luce insisted that all of the items in the memo were there merely for discussion and as bargaining points and that nothing had been set in concrete. In particular he insisted that he was not seeking and would not accept compensation for the bid application process.

What was more interesting than Luce's reaction during the council briefing was the defense immediately offered for him by several council members, some of whom actually competed to be first to apologize to Luce for Miller's impoliteness.

Don Hicks set the tone with a remarkable speech in which he appeared to ridicule Miller for naivete, as if everyone else on the council knew that the story about a "private initiative" and no burden on taxpayers was a fairy tale. Miller merely had embarrassed herself and the council, Hicks suggested, by speaking the truth out loud.

"I don't know why Mr. Luce agreed to all this 'not seeking help,'" Hicks said. "I just think we're putting more rocks in his wagon going up a steep hill.

"Now, look people," Hicks lectured, "we're going to have to spend some money on physical plant, marketing, research, and development. You have to spend money to make money."

Council member Larry Duncan followed a while later with a speech in which he, too, suggested everyone already knew that the taxpayers would be tapped in some form or another for this deal and that Miller was merely grandstanding by telling them about it.

There is a striking contrast between that version of things, frankly conceding the taxpayers will have to shell out, and the public line expounded in recent months by the very people seeking the games, especially Mayor Ron Kirk and the Morning News.

The Morning News has editorialized sonorously that there must be a new focus in the city on the needs of the little people--potholes, sewers, curb repairs, and so on. In announcing his bid for re-election last week, the mayor made much of his newfound commitment to basic city services. Even in defending Luce at last week's council hearing, Kirk formulated a theory of the Olympics as a basic city service.

"The Olympics give you an excuse to be doing what you should be doing anyway," he said, implying that everyone's streets and curbs will get fixed as a part of fixing the city up for the games.

But the deficit of "deferred maintenance" in Dallas--all of the repairs that have not been made in recent years while the city focused instead on sports venues--has been put at $3.1 billion in briefings to the council by the city staff. Those are repairs and services needed all over the city.

The budget for the Atlanta games was around $1.7 billion. Miller says she doesn't understand how the city can focus its primary attention on the monumental task of rebuilding itself and at the same time talk about a huge diversion of focus, energy, and tax support to a sports event that will certainly require a concentrated effort near the sports venues.

Luce has said from the beginning that he cannot bind the city or its taxpayers to anything they don't want to do. The city council can't spend tax money without voting to do it, and no local government can sell bonds unless the public votes to approve the sale. He pointed out last week that even Hutchison's memo refers specifically to the fact that nobody can sell bonds to support the games unless the voters approve the sale in an election.

Luce also observed that the Atlanta games budget of $1.7 billion was eventually paid entirely out of private and game-related revenues, and the city of Atlanta was left with some beautiful new sports venues for which it did not, in the end, have to pay.

All he and the 2012 Committee want, Luce insisted, is a way to comply with the requirements of the International Olympics Committee that there be a back-up guarantee by local or regional government of the Olympic budget, in case the private money from television rights and other sources falls short. Since he believes that won't happen, he thinks the public will wind up financially whole.

"There is no risk to the public," Luce said. Luce was incensed that Miller had accused him not merely of political duplicity but of personal dishonesty in seeking reimbursement for his own contribution of $250,000 to the Olympic cause--a charge he called "outrageous." And his keen eye for public theater had not missed the moment, just before Miller made her accusation, when she walked over to the bank of waiting television cameras and alerted them.

"She went over to Channel 8, and it was like she was saying, 'OK, get ready. Here it comes,'" he said afterward.

Miller, a former reporter and columnist for the Dallas Observer, maintains a degree of collegiality with the press that even many of her colleagues on the council view as fundamentally disloyal, as if she were a Visigoth who had somehow gotten herself elected to the Roman Senate.

Miller thinks the Olympic supporters are engaged in doublespeak. Tying up tax money and public energy for a period of years in order to bring the Olympics here will divert the city from the unglamorous but fundamentally important task of repairing its own house. She sees the arguments in defense of Luce by Hicks, Duncan, the mayor, and others as a deception.

"Remember, guys?" she said over the weekend. "Remember just a few months ago when they said they weren't going to use any public money

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze