The Governess may prove to be the Saints' toughest opponent of the season -- and the most effective governor yet at dealing with Benson and his escalating demands for public subsidies.
So far, Benson and the Saints are mum on Blanco's call for a review of the team's books. She threw down that gauntlet last Thursday at a meeting of local business and political leaders, whom she summoned to hear a report on several options for keeping the Saints in town. The team has said it wants a new stadium, but Benson has suggested he would settle for a renovated Superdome and increased public subsidies. In return, he promises to keep the team in New Orleans until 2020.
Currently, under the terms of a deal cut by former Gov. Mike Foster, the team has control of all Superdome concessions (including parking and luxury suites). It also receives annual state subsidies of more than $15 million. The subsidies will grow to more than $23 million a year in 2008. Benson wants those payments to grow, and he wants taxpayers to foot the bill for a renovated Superdome -- which, in turn, will allow him to make more money from concessions and suites.
Blanco has said for weeks that the Saints should pay part of the renovation costs, hinting that the annual state subsidies may have to be redirected toward the costs of a renovation. Benson and Blanco have had few if any official discussions, but my sources tell me she was in the owner's suite during the Saints' pitiful performance against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 21. She reportedly left at halftime, and we all know how Benson blew his top after the Saints lost 34-13.
Last week, consultants hired by the state reported that Superdome renovation costs of $168 million would require $8.4 million to $12.7 million a year in new revenue (read: increased taxes). That will be a tough sell -- especially now that lawmakers have seen how effectively the "independent" Republican death squads use legislative votes for taxes against Democratic legislators running for Congress.
Meanwhile, Blanco is not the only high-ranking state official calling for an examination of the Saints' books. State Rep. Edwin Murray of New Orleans, who is often a point man on key issues, joined Blanco in calling for the Saints to open their books. "I think he's got to be willing to open his books so we can see exactly where he stands and how much he makes," Murray said of Benson. "If they're going to spend public dollars, I think [the public] has the right to know that stuff so we can make an intelligent decision on whether it's the right thing to do."
Tim Coulon, who chairs the Superdome commission, echoed Blanco's and Murray's sentiments. All agree there needs to be a high level of public confidence in Benson's assertions that the Saints need public subsidies to stay "competitive."
As she presses her case for public review of the Saints' books, Blanco should not be bashful about stating exactly what kind of review is needed. We're not talking about Benson just telling us what the numbers are. We're talking about an independent review by an outside auditor or firm.
Nothing else will do.