Callaghan: Desperate for money, lawmakers test naming-rights waters

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

The possibilities are limited only by the depth of our imaginations and our capacity for cynicism. Two state legislators propose selling naming rights and sponsorships for government buildings and other facilities. The point is to raise money for infrastructure other than from taxes or tolls.

House Bill 1050 sponsored by Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, would allow the naming of public facilities owned by state or local taxpayers in exchange for money. House Bill 1051, by Angel and Rep. Linda Kochmar, R-Federal Way, would offer the same deal to corporate sponsors of transportation facilities.

It is not a new idea. We have become comfortable with CenturyLink and Safeco fields, even letting ourselves assume that naming rights revenue is more than a trickle overwhelmed by the tax dollars devoted to construction. We even believe the money from those commercial deals goes to taxpayers and not the team owners. So once we are numbed by that transfer of cash and glory from the citizens to private enterprise, it should be easy to accept paying tolls to cross the GoDaddy.Com Narrows Bridge, buying passage on the state ferry Almond Roca, watching bills become law in the Boeing Legislative Building. Oh wait, the Chicago-based Boeing has already bought that. As I said, this exercise is limited only by our cynicism.

Some won't go along easily. A few years back, the City of Tacoma cut a deal to rename the Tacoma Dome for Comcast. The locals didn't like the idea of dropping their town from the name of a building they paid for, and the deal was canceled. But that was before the Great Recession had beaten us down, making us willing to accept any indignity as long as no one threatened to tax our soda pop and candy bars.

The transportation renaming might cut into another recent trend and make some legislators reluctant to vote yes. That is the move to name highways, overpasses, even freeway exits after legislators themselves. Glory may give way to greed.

Conflicting statements

The transportation naming rights bill starts with two sentences that reveal -- unintentionally -- the current psychology of the Washington Legislature: "The Legislature finds that our state's transportation system forms the backbone of Washington's economy." Wow, the backbone. That sounds like something the politicians would protect at all costs because, well, we need backbones. Or not, because it then says: "The Legislature further finds that declining transportation revenue has left the state unable to preserve the integrity of Washington's transportation facilities."

And don't even think about the "paramount duty of the state," better known as public schools. Perhaps in the spirit of these bills and as a reprise to their battle over the charter schools initiative, we can sell the names of our underfunded schools to Bill Gates and the Washington Education Association.

In case you fear that we have lost all dignity as a people and as a state, the transportation naming rights bill does set limits on prospective names. Obscene names are out (kind of ironic, given the nature of this whole concept). No tobacco companies or marijuana sellers (we're not afraid to tax them, though). No religious or political messages. No NC-17 films and no adult or mature video games. No escort services. (In others words, no entities with money).

I couldn't find such restrictions in the public building bill, however, so there's still hope for the "Marlboro Department of Health Building" and the "Costco Kirkland Brand Liquor Control Board Building."

If anything, the two proposals aren't imaginative enough. The Mariners require big payments for the right to purchase the best seats. What lobbyist wouldn't want club seats upfront at the Senate Ways and Means Committee? The House and Senate galleries are perfect for luxury suites. And why stop at buildings and bridges? How much did George Washington pay when Congress named the 42nd state?