Governor Hochul’s Backroom Stadium Deal Happened Because New York Sucks At Democracy

New York's lack of any voter referendum tools makes it easy for politicians to shovel public money on megarich NFL owners.

Governor Hochul’s Backroom Stadium Deal Happened Because New York Sucks At Democracy
In September, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a vaccine promotion with Kim Pegula, one of the owners of the Bills, and former Bills player Bruce Smith. (Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

Even for Albany, the endgame went fast. For the better part of three months, Governor Kathy Hochul had kept her plan to throw public money at a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills under wraps as the state budget progressed, all the while insisting that reports of a potential record-breaking $1 billion giveaway were inaccurate.

When Hochul finally announced her long-promised plan on March 28, the final tally turned out to be just that—over $1 billion, including $600 million in up-front state cash, $160 million worth of tax money for future maintenance and upgrades, and $250 million from Erie County. In exchange for this windfall of taxpayer dollars, Terry and Kim Pegula, the fracking billionaires who own the Bills, will promise to keep their team in Buffalo, right where they’ve consistently said they wanted to stay all along, and continue to collect all ticket, concessions, parking, and naming-rights revenue for themselves.

The response was, unsurprisingly in a state whose western end is separated from New York City by more than 300 miles and the soda/pop line, not positive. Senator Liz Krueger, chair of the senate’s finance committee, called it “a terrible way to use the taxpayers’ money”; Assemblymember Ron Kim tweeted in response to the New York Times saying state officials had reached a deal on a Bills stadium, “I don’t recall reaching any fucking deal to give the 8th richest NFL owners $850 million of taxpayer $$.” (Hochul replied, in part, that upstaters complain when she spends money on the New York City subways, and isn’t that really the same thing?)

The deal was no more popular among the public. A subsequent poll of registered New York state voters found that they opposed Hochul’s stadium spending plan by a more than 2-to-1 margin across all demographics. Democrats, Republicans, independents, upstaters, downstaters—even those polled in the counties right around Buffalo gave the subsidy a resounding thumbs down.

And yet, just 12 days after Hochul first announced it, the Bills subsidy became law, passed as part of the state’s omnibus budget bill. This year’s version of the annual “Big Ugly” bill was approved by overwhelming margins in both the Assembly and Senate, as legislators held their noses for the parts they didn’t like in exchange for provisions they were in favor of.

How did this happen? One simple answer: It’s Albany. New York state’s political culture has long been viewed as singularly undemocratic—NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice once formally awarded New York’s legislature the title of “most dysfunctional” in the nation—with a long tradition of arranging deals behind closed doors by “three men in a room” (the governor and the heads of the State Senate and Assembly), who then instruct the rest of the legislature how to vote. After all, the last time a New York sports team got close to a billion dollars in public money for a new stadium—the New York Yankees in 2005—Albany leaders approved the state’s portion by literally dropping a bill on legislators’ desks the same day they were expected to vote on it. (“I embarrassingly admit I did not read this bill,” Krueger admitted at the time.)