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Upping the Ante 

Gov. Kathleen Blanco recognized that public subsidies to the Saints were always intended to be temporary -- something Saints owner Tom Benson seems to have forgotten.

From the outset, New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson had the upper hand in his negotiations for a new long-term agreement with Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Thanks to former Gov. Mike Foster, Benson already has a sweet deal from the state -- escalating public subsidies no matter how poorly the team performs -- and he faces no immediate pressure to remove his personal siphon from the state treasury.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Benson broke off negotiations with the state last week. In effect, Blanco was asking him to give up a sure thing in exchange for a chance to get something even better -- but no guarantees. That, to a man who owns a bank and sells high-end automobiles, is not a good deal.

Put another way, if the state were paying you $15 million a year not to work, and if the state were obligated to continue paying you that much or more not to work for the next six years, would you consider giving up those millions so that you could possibly make even more millions -- but you would have to work to get any of it?

Granted, operating an NFL franchise takes a great deal of work. But, if you can get an extra $15 million a year -- escalating to more than $23 million a year by 2010 -- without having to work specifically for that money, you can dedicate your time and resources to other matters.

In effect, Benson has upped the ante by saying 'Thanks, but no thanks' to Blanco's request for a new long-term deal. In addition to rejecting the state's offer out of hand, Benson has cut off negotiations until after the 2005 season -- once again trying to set the timetable for any discussions. (Recall that he initially tried to impose a Feb. 1 deadline for a new deal, and then a March 1 deadline -- both of which Blanco brushed aside.)

For her part, Blanco put forth the best opening offer that she could, without following Foster's lead of giving away the farm. She recognized, as any prudent governor would, that the state cannot continue to give away free money to millionaires in ever-increasing quantum. She likewise recognized that the subsidies were always intended to be temporary -- something Benson seems to have forgotten -- in lieu of either a new stadium or a significantly improved Superdome. She offered an improved 'Dome, with Benson helping to pay for renovations.

The problem is that the subsidies, like all forms of welfare, became addictive, and now Benson doesn't want to give them up. He not only wants them to continue, but now he also wants a better Superdome as well. (You don't get to be an NFL owner by being meek.) In exchange, he was willing to sign a deal that would keep the team in New Orleans for at least 20 more years.

Only the negotiators know how much -- if at all -- the two sides moved towards one another during their talks. For Benson, it wasn't enough. He has decided to take his ball and go home ... for now.

On one level, it will put added pressure on the state come next January. By then, the current deal will allow him to move the team -- after repaying $81 million in past subsidies.

On the other hand, if Los Angeles gets a franchise by then, his threat to move the team will ring hollow. Until then, the rest of us can only hope that the team improves on the field. Hopefully, the chances of that happening are better than those of Benson and Blanco finding some middle ground any time soon.

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