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Overreach on Panthers comes back to bite city

The math never did add up. Now, a bipartisan group of state legislators is bringing some sense back into the debate over how and whether the public should help the Carolina Panthers renovate their NFL stadium.

Two Republicans and two Democrats – Reps. Ruth Samuelson and Bill Brawley, and Becky Carney and Beverly Earle – filed legislation Thursday that would kill the city of Charlotte’s initial plan. The bill would give the city flexibility on how it can spend hotel/motel taxes and restaurant taxes, freeing up existing money to help the Panthers. It would not, however, give the city permission to raise taxes.

Faced with a Panthers request of $125 million to upgrade Bank of America Stadium, the city sought the state’s blessing to double the prepared food and beverage tax for 30 years. The City Council and Mayor Anthony Foxx appeared to be the only ones who didn’t appreciate the massive flaw in that proposal – that the new tax would bring in about $1 billion, or $875 million more than the Panthers’ request.

We pointed out that gorge in editorials in January. Weeks went by with no explanation from the city, and even today city officials, in explaining their desire for that extra money, offer only headlines about amateur sports ambitions.

Predictably and appropriately, the city’s overreach on the tax hike is coming back to bite it. The Samuelson & Co. bill would put an end to the city’s cash grab – while clearing the way for Charlotte to give the Panthers $110 million from existing taxes. That would grant the team 88 percent of what it sought from the city, all but $15 million. (An additional $19 million for maintenance and traffic control would come from other city sources).

The city argues that $110 million is not enough to cover the Panthers, pay for unspecified convention center upgrades and build an array of amateur sports complexes. The city is right. This is called a tradeoff, and it’s something that most of the city’s taxpayers recognize, in this day and age, from their own budgets.

Whether taxpayers should help an NFL team renovate its stadium is a good topic to debate. The City Council, legislative leaders and the business community are mostly on the same side on that question. A topic not even worth debating: Which is better – helping the Panthers by raising taxes, or helping the Panthers with existing tax money not earmarked for anything specific? The City Council is considering shrinking its tax request. But any new proposal will still likely bring in much more than the remaining $15 million the Panthers seek. Ironically, if the council had asked for a much smaller amount in the first place, it might have sailed through.

Meanwhile, legislators seem to be cooking up a deal to give $62.5 million or so in state money for the stadium renovations. Taxpayers should demand transparency on that front, and not just in the hours before a proposal comes up for a vote.

The Panthers are an asset to Charlotte and the Carolinas. The city has not handled the team’s request well. It’s good to see legislators bringing common sense to the debate – something we can’t frequently say.

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