There have been some interesting political stories to tell this year, but two of the most amazing may have happened last week in Georgia’s neighboring states to the south and east.
First, we’ll travel down to Collier County, which is located on the southwest coast of Florida and is known primarily by its resort city, Naples. The management of the Atlanta Braves wants a new stadium for spring training. They thought they had found another bunch of suckers on the Collier County Commission who would be willing to spend $100 million in tax funds to build that stadium. As is typical in these types of deals, the Braves would play spring training games in the free stadium and keep all the revenues generated by the facility.
I’m sure that Braves officials thought this would be a slam dunk. After all, they had snookered Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee a few years ago into giving away $400 million in public funds to build a new stadium for the team in Smyrna.
When Braves executive John Schuerholz appeared before the Collier County commissioners last week, however, he was in for a rude awakening. The commission voted unanimously to cut off the negotiations. They had the good sense to recognize that there are better things to spend tax dollars on than a free stadium for the owners of an out-of-state baseball team.
One of the most level-headed commissioners was Penny Taylor, who noted that the county was trying to find $130 million to pay for needed road and bridge expansions. “That’s almost an identical amount” to the sum that the Braves were requesting, she said. “What’s the better use?
“There are a lot of publications out there that show this could be nothing more than taxpayers subsidizing a professional team that would make a tremendous amount of money from this,” Taylor added.
While that was happening in Florida, there was also big news coming out of a grand jury in Columbia, SC. State Rep. Jim Merrill, a Republican from Daniel Island, was indicted on 30 counts of ethics violations. The grand jury alleged that Merrill or his public relations firm took in more than $1.3 million from groups that had a stake in getting legislation passed at the state capitol and failed to report that money in disclosure filings.
For example, Merrill was charged with accepting more than $391,000 from the S.C. Association of Realtors and its affiliates in exchange for influencing legislation that would benefit the association. The indictment further alleged that Merrill accepted more than $172,000 from Student Transportation of America, a school bus provider. Merrill subsequently sponsored a bill to privatize school buses in the state, although that bill didn’t pass. “The defendant intentionally violated the law for the purpose of making money for himself personally,” the indictment stated.
This kind of cronyism and influence peddling happens in state governments all over the country, of course, but you don’t often see politicians being called to account for their actions. That’s why David Pascoe, the special prosecutor who handled the investigation into Merrill’s activities, deserves commendation and a huge pay raise.
“Say what you will about South Carolina,” said Neill Herring, a Sierra Club lobbyist and longtime observer of southern politics. “At least they catch their crooks.”
The recent actions in Florida and South Carolina are two of the most encouraging political developments I’ve seen in a long time. I hope we see more of this in Georgia next year.
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