Taxing the Fans

Blame Judge Roy Hofheinz. He started it. His vision for the Eighth Wonder of the World, Houston's Astrodome, began the mad scramble for increasingly opulent sports palaces.

Now, three decades after the Harris County judge saw his dream become a reality, the lust for spiffy sports stadiums looms as an additional burden for millions of Texas taxpayers. Every major pro sports franchise in the state -- except for Gov. George W. Bush's Texas Rangers, who, thanks to Arlington taxpayers, have the most profitable venue in professional baseball -- wants the public to build them either a completely new venue or to pay for renovations to their existing venue. And now that a bill authored by Rep. Kim Brimer (R-Arlington) has been signed into law by Bush, citizens around the state can look forward to higher taxes on everything from rental cars to hotel rooms.

Brimer's bill, HB 92, will allow cities and counties to choose from a menu of taxes that can be used to fund stadiums and other venues including libraries, convention centers, and museums. Cities wanting to undertake a project will have to get citizen approval before they will be allowed to hike taxes on hotels, rental cars, event tickets, event parking, and retail sales. With Brimer's bill in effect, look for the teams to start jockeying for tax dollars. Here's a rundown of who wants what:

* Gazillionaire Jerry Jones, the brazen owner of the most valuable franchise in sport, the Dallas Cowboys, wants the citizens of Irving to pay to close the hole in the roof and do other improvements to Texas Stadium, the most profitable stadium in sport. Comptroller John Sharp has estimated the cost at $150 million.

* The San Antonio Spurs moved into the $182 mil-lion Alamodome shortly after it was finished in 1993. But they're already talking about the need for a new venue. Not enough luxury boxes, you see. Comptroller's cost estimate: $100 million.

* Ross Perot Jr., son of wacky Dallas billionaire and presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, wants a new arena for his Dallas Mavericks. But he and Thomas Hicks, owner of the NHL's Dallas Stars, both want new arenas for their teams and they don't necessarily want to share. So Dallas could be asked to build two arenas, one for basketball and one for hockey, at a likely cost of more than $100 million each.

* In Houston, grocery magnate Drayton McLane wants a new baseball stadium for his Astros. McLane threatened to take his team out of town if he didn't get a new stadium. Harris County voters approved a plan last November to keep the Astros and build McLane a $265 million stadium near downtown. With the approval of the Brimer bill, that project can move ahead.

* The NBA's Rockets also want new digs. The price tag for a new venue for Hakeem, Clyde, and Sir Charles, which they will have to share with the upstart ice hockey Aeros: $200 million. But to get it, they will have to get voter approval.

* With the departure of the hapless Oilers for Nashville, Houston has joined the ranks of Cleveland and Los Angeles as a big city without an NFL team. But to lure a team, they will need a first class stadium, and the Astrodome doesn't cut it any more. Finished in 1965 at a cost of $36.5 million, remodeling costs are estimated at five and a half times that amount.

So blame Judge Hofheinz, but give him credit. He got the Astrodome built, and three decades ago, he was thinking just like the multi-millionaire team owners of today: He made sure that Harris County taxpayers paid the entire cost of his new stadium. -- R.B.

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