Twenty years on: The Regional Renaissance Initiative

Twenty years on: The Regional Renaissance Initiative

It was 20 years ago this week – on Nov. 4, 1997 – that voters in 11 Southwestern Pennsylvania counties rejected a hustle. The Regional Renaissance Initiative, which came to be known as “The Stadiums Tax,” was overwhelmingly rejected.


The measure would have, for only seven years (supposedly), raised Allegheny County’s sales tax from 7 percent to 7.5 percent. In the surrounding counties, the sales tax would have increased from 6 percent to 6.5 percent. That represented increases of 7.1 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively.


Indeed, the primary beneficiary would have been the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers, given the money would have been used to help finance a new baseball field for the former and, at the time, a new or renovated football stadium for the latter.


Additional money from the new piggyback tax would have been earmarked for an expansion of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and new projects in downtown Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. As a carrot to surrounding counties, there also would have been a “Regional Growth Fund,” though tapping it, at least for the contiguous counties, would have been akin to attempting to break into Fort Knox.


But as anathema “The Stadiums Tax” was to sound public policy, the initiative was far more than a “stadiums tax” — and far more dangerous to liberty and local rule — as the Allegheny Institute documented in a 17-page white paper released four months before the vote (“Taxation with Misrepresentation,” Staff Report, Vol. 97, No. 7).


In a nutshell, the Regional Renaissance Initiative was the latest in a long line of attempts to tax Greater Pittsburgh back to prosperity.


As the institute put it in the introduction to its report, initiative proponents “say that Southwestern Pennsylvania has failed to grow economically, not because of its high taxes and unfavorably perceived business climate, but because of a failure to make enough public ‘investments’ in the ‘infrastructure’ of the region.”


“Those proponents have also railed against those who would ‘perpetuate the myth that this is all about stadiums’ and challenged all citizens to read the legislation detailing the plan.”


Which is exactly what more than a few astute folks who might have been born at night but not last night did. In addition to the Allegheny Institute, that would include the editorial board of the old Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and KDKA radio’s Mike Pintek.


Here’s the Allegheny Institute’s damning assessment of the Regional Renaissance Initiative, which played a seminal role in the region’s We the People refusing to be sheeple:


“What we’ve found is a plan that will do the opposite of what its supporters say that it will.


“In the name of fulfilling the ‘public purpose’ of promoting economic development in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the … Regional Renaissance Initiative will increase the tax burden on the fourth most heavily taxed region in the nation, allow public money to be spent for the direct gain of private, profit-seeking businesses, and permit the taking of private property via the power of eminent domain.


“Worst of all, it will create a large, powerful, unelected regional authority to which member counties will have to address petitions in order to get their residents’ money back – and which will have near-total control over how the money raised by the tax is spent.


“Finally, the legislation treats ‘regional destination facilities,’ like new stadiums, differently than it does other ‘growth projects’ – ‘destination facilities’ can receive not just a portion but all of the proceeds of this tax.”


Indeed, it was “the hustle” that a Trib editorial called it – a sop to the barons of sport (and their crony political and corporate benefactors). It would have ended up as a failed and most unsavory exercise in regional dictatorial governance. Some “renaissance.”


The voting public saw through the massive and expensive public relations campaign mounted by proponents and roundly thumped the Regional Renaissance Initiative.


Of course, that victory was short-lived: Political manipulations and machinations saw the Regional Asset District raided to produce the lion’s share of funding for PNC Park and Heinz Field.


Taxpayers said “No!” The pols said “Who cares!” The “public” was nothing more than a trifling nuisance to the self-anointed “know-better” crowd who, by hook and by crook, thumbed its nose at the public for which it had taken an oath to serve.


But, still, 20 years ago this week, and for one brief, shining moment, a public armed with the most effective weapon there is – accurate information – turned back the mountebanks of mis- and disinformation.


Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (