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Kansas lawmakers approve tax incentive bill to lure Chiefs, Royals away from Missouri

A red-clad crowd packs Arrowhead Stadium to watch the Kansas City Chiefs play.
Eric Thomas
The Kansas Reflector
A red-clad crowd packs Arrowhead Stadium to watch the Kansas City Chiefs play.

TOPEKA, Kansas — The Kansas City Royals and Chiefs could receive hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax revenue to move from Missouri and build new stadiums across the state line under legislation passed Tuesday by Kansas lawmakers.

The House voted 84-38 and the Senate voted 27-8 to approve legislation that would expand a state incentive program in an attempt to lure one or both teams from Kansas City.

The bill now heads to Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, who said in a statement following the Senate vote that the effort to bring the teams to Kansas “shows we’re all-in on keeping our beloved teams in the Kansas City metro.”

“Kansas now has the opportunity to become a professional sports powerhouse with the Chiefs and Royals potentially joining Sporting KC as major league attractions, all with robust, revenue-generating entertainment districts surrounding them providing new jobs, new visitors and new revenues that boost the Kansas economy,” Kelly said.

Neither team has promised to move to Kansas, though both actively lobbied for the legislation’s passage. The Chiefs said in a statement that the team appreciated Kansas leaders reaching out for input on the bill.

“We look forward to exploring the options this legislation may provide,” the statement said.

The Royals said the team was grateful to the legislature for its vote.

“The Kansas City Royals look forward to additional conversations as we evaluate where we will play baseball in the future,” the team said. “We will always prioritize the best interests of our fans, associates and taxpayers in this process.”

State Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Republican from Stilwell, said during debate in the House that Missouri had a history of losing professional sports teams and implored fellow House members to pass the legislation.

“I ask you today, do you really want to put that type of an economic generation in the hands of the state of Missouri?” Tarwater said just before the vote.

Passage of the bill represents a monumental step in Kansas lawmakers’ attempts to court the teams. Both teams have signaled a willingness to move from their current stadiums at the Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City, Missouri.

While neither team has announced a proposed site for a Kansas stadium, legislators speculated it could land in Wyandotte County near the Sporting KC soccer stadium, NASCAR track and outlet shops.

“We have the history of building amazing projects that have brought in retail commerce, restaurants, hotels and have improved an area that was largely just a field and turned it into a tax-generating machine for our state,” said state Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican.

The legislation, he said, would put Kansas in a “very good position to keep the Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals in the Kansas City metro area.”

The bill, which was not voted on by any legislative committee, would expand the state’s Sales Tax and Revenue (STAR) Bond program, which is meant to help finance tourism and entertainment districts to help pay for a professional football or baseball stadium of at least $1 billion.

A developer building a stadium under the program would be eligible to finance up to 70% of the project cost by issuing bonds and repaying them with the increased sales tax collections from the stadium site. The expansion would have initially allowed up to 75% of project costs but was tweaked before introduction. Debt on a stadium constructed under the expansion wouldn’t have to be repaid for 30 years instead of the normal 20.

The project could also receive a boost from liquor taxes generated in the STAR Bond district and revenues from a fund Kansas created when it legalized sports betting.

During House debate, state Rep. Paul Waggoner, a Hutchinson Republican, argued subsidized stadiums never generate the economic activity that they promise. He was alarmed by what he called “minimal transparency” in the deal-making process laid out in the legislation.

The bill says any agreement between the state and a team would be confidential until after it has been executed.

Waggoner called the legislation “bad public policy.”

“This is not your mother’s STAR Bonds,” Waggoner said. “This is a jacked up super-sized version of STAR Bonds.”

The bill limits the eligibility to National Football League or Major League Baseball teams currently near Kansas. The financing mechanism could be used for both stadiums and training facilities.

Both teams have pressed lawmakers in recent weeks to pass the bill with representatives from the Royals hosting dinner for Democratic lawmakers at a steakhouse Monday night and the Chiefs throwing a lunchtime block party Tuesday steps from the Capitol.

Earlier this month, a nonprofit called Scoop and Score Inc. launched to advocate for a Kansas stadium deal. The organization, which does not have to disclose its donors, hired 30 lobbyists to advocate for the STAR Bond expansion legislation.

In a statement, former Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a lobbyist for Scoop and Score and the Chiefs, said the Legislature “stepped up in a big way, paving the path to make sure the Chiefs stay right where they belong — in Kansas City with their loyal fans.”

“The votes show overwhelming bipartisan support because Kansas lawmakers know what the Chiefs mean to us and how big of an economic opportunity this is for Kansas,” Ryckman said.

Several lawmakers expressed skepticism about STAR Bonds or the deal in front of them but voted for it anyway.

State Rep. Jason Probst, a Democrat from Hutchinson, said the idea disgusts him and lamented that the legislature does not move as swiftly to pass bills on issues including homelessness, hunger or childhood poverty. But he still voted for the bill.

“So I’m going to hold my nose and probably support this,” he said, “but not without protesting the fact that we get sent here to do things for people, and we never move with this sort of urgency or with this sort of passion or the energy that we have around this.”

In a meeting of House Democrats before the vote, Probst said he thought the Chiefs were using Kansas to “get Missouri worked up” so the state would “sweeten the pot” and offer the team more incentives to stay put.

Probst said he was bothered that the Chiefs were making an emotional appeal, invoking sports heroes, while being thin on details. Still, he said, it would be “catastrophic” if the Chiefs left the Kansas City metro area.

“I do not like this. It feels gross,” Probst said. “This whole show that’s going on feels disgusting to me. And it’s still the right thing to do. That’s how I see it.”

State Rep. Stephanie Sawyer Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat, said during that meeting that she was struggling with the proposal “because I don’t like misogynistic dude bro culture,” because the family that owns the Chiefs supported the anti-abortion constitutional amendment that Kansas voters rejected in 2022. She said she also doesn’t like Ryckman.

But, she said, her decision to support the bill was cemented when she saw testimony from the governor’s office that suggested the governor planned to sign the bill if passed.

Clayton said it would “warm the cockles of my cold, dead feminist heart” to see Kelly get credit for moving the teams to Missouri “and not the dude bros who have been working on this.”

“That is why I’m a ‘yes,’” Clayton said. “I want a woman getting credit for sports things. So I’m doing it out of spite, frankly.”

Across the rotunda, state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, argued STAR Bonds had generally not created anything new but rather subsidized development that likely would have occurred anyway.

“I understand the excitement behind the prospect,” she said. “It is like it’s Christmas Eve and there’s visions of sugar plums, only its royal blue and crimson and gold in this case.”

This story was originally published by The Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

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Allison Kite