Strange bedfellows are camping out under the bleachers to oppose an arena in Sacramento for the Kings pro basketball team. They’re united in opposition because of the lack of public debate, the dubious numbers put out by the city and the growing public subsidy. Now they’re opposing legislation by Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to let the stadium avoid a real environmental impact review.

A recent poll by the opposition group Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork found 78 percent of the respondents favor a public vote on taxpayer subsidies for the arena. Yet Steinberg and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player, are forging ahead as if it’s already a done deal.

But the deal is not done even though Steinberg is fast-tracking legislation to give the arena an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act. The exemption is needed to meet an NBA-imposed deadline for quick construction.

Steinberg’s bill, a gut-and-amend job on another bill, will be introduced Friday. It will be similar to recent bills granting CEQA exemptions for a proposed stadium in downtown Los Angeles for a pro football team; and for a new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara.

No debate

Steinberg’s latest bill is also being introduced at the very end the legislative session, without notice, public debate or any real scrutiny by media. Nearly all of the Sacramento local media — radio, television, newspapers and magazines — are backing the arena project.

Yet Steinberg’s bill is even worse than previous stadium legislation. It also would allow the City of Sacramento greater eminent domain powers to seize the downtown property currently in the way of building the project.

“When it comes to infill projects, when it comes to high wage, big job-opportunity projects, we ought to do all that is reasonable to expedite the process,” Steinberg said in a press conference Aug. 30.

The “reasonable, high wage, big job-opportunities” he is referring to will fall under a Community Workforce and Training Agreement in Sacramento, which requires most of the constructions workers hired for the arena project to be unionized.

Flexing union muscle

“Labor unions and the firm signed to lead construction of a new Kings arena in Sacramento have come to an agreement over the use of unionized labor in the construction of the project, a move that assures peace with the unions but will likely trigger a new source of opposition to the proposed public subsidy for the arena,” the Sacramento Bee reported Wednesday.

But that only enraged and energized the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, a 15-year-old California-based organization dedicated to opposing Project Labor Agreements, which guarantee contracts to unionized firms. The CFEC called the arena PLA “a waste of taxpayer money and a payoff to unions to avoid baseless complaints and lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act.”

“Steinberg needs union lobbyists and Democrats to push through his special [California Environmental Quality Act] exemption bill,” said Eric Christen, CEFC Executive Director. “Requiring construction companies to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions locks up majority support in the legislature for this special interest bill.”

Opposition to the arena deal process

“This is not a hospital, emergency response center, or even a school,” Abigail Okrent told me in an interview discussing Steinberg’s gut-and-amend legislation; she’s the legislative director for the Planning and Conservation League. “If this is such an urgent issue, why not for other issues? It’s a basketball stadium, not a hospital.”

The rushed bill will allow only a limited public comment period during the CEQA process, according to Okrent. Even more egregiously, she said that, even if there are violations to the CEQA laws, “mitigation doesn’t have to be addressed until the end of the first basketball season with an official NBA team actually playing in the arena. This is a contentious issue which requires more discussion.”

The Planning and Conservation League has taken no position on the arena, but is objecting to the rushed,  gut-and-amend bill, and to the lack of proper public vetting.

“This bill sets a terrible precedent by eliminating any realistic chance of halting construction if the arena is approved illegally,” Kevin Bundy, Senior Attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press statement. “This is a wink and a nod to public officials that they can ignore California’s most important environmental law with impunity.”

Gifts of assets

The City of Sacramento is giving assets to the arena developers, which city officials say have a value of $46 million. However, Eye on Sacramento, a public policy watchdog group, estimated the real value of these assets is at least $139 million, making the total taxpayer subsidy $350 million — not the $257 million as represented by the city.

Among the assets being gifted to the arena deal are the city’s parking garages and meters, which currently generate about $9 million a year for the general fund. The city has proposed diverting all of the city parking revenues to pay the arena bond payments. But according to EOS, this will blow a $9 million annual hole in the general fund.

Sacramento is already running a $9 million deficit; another $9 million would double that to $18 million.

Another area of substantial discrepancy is between the subsidy numbers provided by the city and EOS’s subsidy calculations.

According to EOS, a large portion of the discrepancy can be attributed to city staff assigning zero value to the 3,700 parking garage spaces the city is giving to the developers, nearly 50 percent of all city-owned garage spaces. EOS calculates the garage spots actually have a fair market value of $58 million, based on the city’s own 2012 parking valuation study.

City staff also assigned zero value to the six digital billboard sites the city is giving away as part of the arena deal. But EOS found the sites are worth $18 million based on values established in a deal the city cut with Clear Channel Outboard just last year.

The remaining discrepancies are due to the city staff’s gross under-valuation of the six land parcels the city is also giving away to the developers. EOS found two of the six parcels to be worth four to six times the values assigned by staff.

And EOS warns Steinberg’s CEQA exemption bill would allow arena construction to go ahead even with anticipated traffic impacts. Then taxpayers will be on the hook when Caltrans decides to send a bill of $100 million-plus for freeway improvements — after arena construction is already underway.

Crossposted on CalWatchDog