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The Ever-Changing and Always Vague Definition of “No Public Funds” for #Boston2024

The latest statewide poll on Boston’s 2024 Summer Olympics bid found Massachusetts residents opposed to the bid by a slim margin of 46% to 43%. When asked if they would support having the city submit a bid “with the requirement that no public money be used for the operation of the Games,” Massachusetts residents chose yes 56% to 37%. The toplines hide some very interesting statewide contrasts. The “no public money” qualifier had significant impact in many regions of the state (swings of over 20% in the regions labeled “Worcester/West,” “Northeast,” and “Southeast/Cape”); however, it made no real difference in Suffolk County. Those in Suffolk opposed the bid 49% to 46% in the first question and then 46% to 44% in the second. That’s a swing of -3 to -2 for Boston 2024–a negligible change.

But this question does raise the issue of what we mean when we talk about public money.

The way that Mayor Walsh and Boston 2024 have spoken about “public funding” for the Games has narrowed over time. First, Boston 2024 weakened its original “no public funding” pledge by acknowledging they would seek federal funding for security. Earlier this month, Mayor Walsh admitted that public funding would be needed for the transportation upgrades and changes required for the Olympics (Boston 2024 has insisted, incorrectly, that the funds were already allocated). When Boston 2024 talks about “no public funds,” they are now only talking about the construction of Olympic venues and auxiliary sites.

It is important to remember then how Boston 2024 has divided its budget into three parts: the operating budget (OCOG, or Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, budget), the capital budget, and the security budget. Boston 2024 has taken out the $1-2 billion in security spending from the OCOG budget, although the large police and surveillance presence is certainly a part of the “operation” of the games. The capital budget refers to the transportation and infrastructure upgrades.

But how likely is it that no public money will end up being used for the operation of the Games–using Boston 2024’s definition of operation? First of all, the fact that Boston will have to act as a financial guarantor, promising to ensure that all necessary costs are covered, puts the city at significant risk in this regard. Private developers pulled out of projects in Vancouver and London, leaving the host cities with spiraling cost overruns and debt.

However, we need to think more about our operative definition of “public funds” here. Public funding for a “temporary” stadium or an international media center wouldn’t likely come in the form of direct spending (provided, of course, that the developers don’t back out). It would come in the form of discounted leasing or sale of municipal/ state land and in the form of the various tax abatements and credits so often sought. Such measures drain the public purse and are, as a result, just “public funds” by another name.

But there are still other forms of public money at risk or already being used. For this, let’s look at Section 1 of Evan Falchuk’s proposed ballot language:

Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, and except as provided in section 3 hereof, no state agency, authority, or other entity created by the Legislature, shall expend any state funds to procure, host, aid, further, or remediate the effects of, the 2024 Olympics.

The city and state have both already expended funds to address the issue of hosting the 2024 Olympics. How many hours have Marty Walsh and his staff spent on this issue? That time uses up public money. Have all of those hours been reimbursed by Boston 2024? Although the salary for the woman running the “Office of Olympic Planning” will be reimbursed by Boston 2024, what money was spent in posting the job announcement, reviewing applications, and interviewing applicants? Will there be rent paid to the city for space used? How much time have aides in the state legislature spent on this issue? How much time has been spent soliciting and reviewing applicants for the Olympic consultant position–a job which will be paid for in public funds? How about the BRA’s John FitzGerald? He spends a lot of time on the Olympic issue. Although the BRA’s funds come mainly from leases rather than “taxpayer dollars,” that money is still public money being diverted from other possible uses. If public time is public money, then Boston 2024 will be sucking up a lot of public money.

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