Santorum backed Pittsburgh stadium tax hike

Then-senator backed ‘97 sales-tax vote, financing after it failed

Even as Rick Santorum’s Iowa-caucuses boost shows signs of fading just days before the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, prominent politicos in his hometown of Pittsburgh are challenging his claim to an unblemished record of fiscal integrity.

Santorum friends and former Republican associates there say that as a U.S. senator, he astonished them by lobbying for a boost in the sales tax in 11 southwestern Pennsylvania counties to pay for building a new stadium for the Pittsburgh Steelers and another new stadium for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The teams owners were threatening to move their teams elsewhere if the government didn’t give them what they demanded.

“It was a sweetheart deal for the two teams, a total taxpayer giveaway,” Larry Dunn, who was a Republican and the commission chairman of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.

Mr. Dunn helped lead a coalition of conservatives to defeat the proposed tax increase.

“I just couldn’t understand how Rick could have supported this big-government position and claim to be a fiscal conservative,” Mr. Dunn said.

In a 1997 referendum, voters in the 11 counties defeated the proposal by a 5-to-2 margin, even though the owners of both teams had threatened to move their teams from the city if taxpayers didn’t foot the bill for the new stadiums, which eventually cost a reported $496 million.

Mr. Santorum then backed a move to have the state legislature provide the money. The outcome was that a provision tucked in a innocuous-sounding “housekeeping” bill committed the state to “lend” the money in effect to the owners of the two teams, with an informal understanding it would not be paid back. It wasn’t and still hasn’t been, those involved in the fight told The Washington Times.

Hit with allegations that he was a liberal, big-government, tax-and-spend Republican, Mr. Santorum stuck to his guns — and the tax-increase proposal.

In a 1997 opinion column that Mr. Santorum wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he attempted to justify his position.

“My support for the half-cent sales tax in southwestern Pennsylvania has provoked criticism, consternation and speculation,” he wrote. “Contrary to what my critics have suggested, I am not another Republican gone soft. I am not a convert to tax-and-spend policies.”

But 15 years later, in the midst of a surprising long-shot candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, some of Mr. Santorum’s fellow Pennsylvanians are incredulous.

“It was a little strange for a Republican to be pushing a state sales tax,” said former Armstrong County commissioner James Scahill, a Republican.

Mr. Scahill described himself a longtime Santorum friend.

A state GOP official who has known Mr. Santorum for 20 years said her dismay hasnt diminished.

“I was absolutely astounded that a Republican U.S. senator would do this,” Pennsylvania GOP Central Committee member Mary Ann Meloy told The Washington Times.

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About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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