Apparently, S.B. 6116 really is about Huskies vs. Cougars - and it shouldn't be

About two months ago, Grady wrote a thoughtful post about the Husky Stadium renovation and his opposition to the potential of using public funds to pay for approximately half of the anticipated $300 million bill. What ensued was a thoughtful discussion that (mostly) displayed the Internet at its very best -- ideas on each side of the issue being exchanged in a respectful way.

It seems that kind of discourse about Senate Bill 6116 exists only around here.

Today, Murray drafted an amendment he says he'll propose to the state operating budget -- an amendment that would force the WSU boosters to live with the consequences of a no-public-money-for-stadiums philosophy.

The amendment reads: "No state funds, tuition revenues, or student fees shall be used to pay for the operating expenses of intercollegiate athletic programs at any of the public research universities within the state. Any state funds or tuition revenues currently being used for this purpose shall be used for academic instruction."

That's targeted at WSU's athletic department, which, according to spokesman Bill Stevens, receives about $2 million a year from the university (or about 8 percent of the athletic department budget.)

It also could make trouble for Wazzu's Martin Stadium renovation project, which is being funded in part with student fees of $25 a semester for undergrads. WSU students voted to accept the fees in 2006 to help pay for the stadium.

"I have heard the message loud and clear, state taxes should not be used for sports," Murray told me tonight.

As the author of the piece notes, the likelihood of this kind of an amendment actually becoming law is highly unlikely, but the point is clear: Rational thought has no place in what has become a pissing match of epic proportions.

Although I will submit that an elected official should be above this kind of petty rhetoric, I'm hardly going to place the blame square on Murray. The Cougs who have gotten involved with this -- so eloquently reflected by the equally inflammatory rhetoric over at Cougfan.com -- haven't exactly comported themselves in a gentlemanly manner, either.

I'll admit that many of the Cougs' complaints are legitimate and real; while the Huskies raise a lot of good points about job creation and note that it is a public facility, there's no getting around the fact that this project as currently proposed will create a competitive advantage for the University of Washington football team -- when UW is matching the state's contribution with private funds to construct non-essential upgrades to the stadium that will substantially increase revenue into the athletic department, it's an inevitable byproduct.

And competitive advantage does matter, beyond just the happiness of fans. The athletic department is the most effective public relations tool of any university. When teams do well, everything else does well, too: WSU experienced its single largest enrollment jump after the Rose Bowl in 1997, and donations to all parts of the university increased. If you need even further proof of the effect successful athletics have, just go ask Gonzaga how their school has changed since raising the profile of the basketball program.

But you know what? A lot of Cougs need to start facing reality with regards to their position on this issue, because the bottom line is that this kind of small-minded bickering isn't any good for either university.

Here is the truth of the matter. Husky Stadium is a public facility, and the University of Washington does hold a special place in the landscape of King County that makes it a worthwhile investment for their local government. Besides, as a lot of Huskies rightly point out, to ignore that while also turning a blind eye to the public money WSU's athletic department receives from the general fund each year is hypocritical at best.

In my mind, the question really isn't whether UW should get public funds, but how much? Should UW get $150 million? Not a chance -- I think a much more reasonable request would be a percentage (50 percent? 60 percent?) of the amount it will take to bring the building up to code. The University of Washington's administrators are the ones who have let the facility fall into such an abysmal state of disrepair for the last two decades; they must not be allowed to escape that kind of blatant negligence. Once that obligation is met by a public/private partnership, then let the Huskies pay for whatever upgrades they see fit out of what's left of their privately raised dollars.

In fact, this kind of an arrangement is well within the parameters of Senate Bill 6116, which simply delegates to the King County council the authority to decide what to do with those existing tourist taxes that are currently in place to pay off Safeco Field and Qwest Field. And if you know anything about the politics of the King County council, you know the likelihood of them forking over $150 million to the University of Washington isn't real good.

Yet, so many Cougs still fight this thing tooth and nail. What's lost in the process of spending all of our Coug political capital on killing this bill? On the surface, we all now look small, whiny and petty, whether we've actively opposed this bill as individuals or not. But digging a little deeper reveals larger issues.

We've now harpooned the ability for the county to use those funds -- generated in that county -- to maintain Safeco Field and Qwest Field, lest they fall into the same state as Husky Stadium; the ability to renovate Seattle Center and potentially lure an NBA team back to Seattle (and force Clay Bennett pay his carpetbagger money in the process); and the ability to further fund arts and humanities in the area. All are worthy ventures.

But if you think bigger, it's this -- emphasis added by me:

(WSU) felt that bringing the stadium issues at the University of Washington or at Washington State to the legislature at this uncertain economic time was inappropriate ... However, I have always believed that if the University of Washington receives any funding for their stadium renovation, WSU should receive the same.

That's AD Jim Sterk, who said that Wednesday on his Cougar Chats. Wonder why you haven't heard anything from him opposing this bill? That's why. If UW gets theirs, we're going to get ours at some point, too. Imagine asking for a modest $20 million to complete Martin Stadium's renovation after the UW gets $100 million or more? I'd say our chances go up -- way up.

I'm not saying we should be advocating to get this bill passed; after all, there remains the remote possibility that the King County council does something completely absurd (a stretch, I know) and gives Washington everything they ask for. But it just doesn't make sense for us to fight this thing as vigorously as we have. If the bill were a stand-alone Husky Stadium bill, I'd understand it a lot more. But it feels like we're cutting off our nose to spite our face on this one.

Although it might already be too late, a more prudent approach would be to back off and let this bill pass, then lobby the King County council to spend the money responsibly. There are plenty of influential Cougs in that area who could do so effectively. Heck, it likely won't even take any lobbying for the council to tell the Huskies they're asking for way too much.

Let's quit making this about Huskies and Cougars, and realize that raising the profiles of both universities should be the primary concern of all of us, whether your color is purple or crimson.

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