OLYMPIA — As many state and local governments across the nation deal with the aftermath of severe budget cuts prompted by the Great Recession, a Washington state lawmaker has put forth a plan to increase revenue without raising taxes: Allow the sale of naming rights to publicly owned facilities.
“I’m trying to think out of the box and come up with some revenue for our local folks and for our state that isn’t another dollar out of our taxpayers’ wallets,” said Republican state Rep. Jan Angel.
The practice has been in place elsewhere for decades, most prominently on sports venues. The results have ranged from memorable, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, to regrettable, Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif.
The proposal has sparked a measure of skepticism in Washington state among those who think it would give the appearance that government influence is for sale.
“I think perhaps of the CenturyLink Capitol building or something like that,” said Democratic state Rep. Sam Hunt, during a recent committee hearing. “How far could this go?”
Angel’s plans include measures that would allow private bidders to pay state and local governments for the right to name everything from government buildings to schools. She maintains that reception to her bills has been very positive.
In addition to raising funds, Angel, who represents a district west of Seattle that includes the town of Port Orchard, says she wants to provide firmer legal footing for local governments in Washington state that already are engaged in the practice.
Washington state isn’t alone in considering such plans.
Virginia lawmakers last year passed a measure allowing the state to sell naming rights to its bridges and roads. Shortly thereafter, the state signed a $2 million yearly deal granting GEICO Insurance naming rights to all 43 of its rest areas.
New Hampshire and Florida lawmakers discussed similar legislation last year, to no avail. New Hampshire, however, is set to try again this year.
Several local government agencies also have gotten in on the action.
In Philadelphia in 2010, AT&T paid $5 million to put its name on a downtown transit station for five years.
A year before that in New York City, the British bank Barclays bought the naming rights to a bustling Brooklyn subway station for $200,000 per year. The bank’s name also is attached to the adjacent arena that is home to the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
In Washington, Angel says she is particularly interested in raising cash by selling the naming rights to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The state owes more than $45 million a year in debt payments on the span. Money for those payments is raised by bridge tolls. Those fees are slated to increase from the current $4 to $6 per round trip in 2015, a scenario Angel hopes to avoid. It was not immediately clear, however, whether the plan would be able to accomplish this goal.
Despite the potential to provide cash, critics say that such deals are inappropriate.
“The problem is it’s not money for nothing,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a left-leaning Washington D.C.-based consumer advocacy group.
Weissman says he understands why some lawmakers find the approach appealing, but argues that it should be abandoned.
“It erases the important and appropriate divide between the commercial sphere and the civil sphere and communicates a message that everything is for sale,” he said.
Under Angel’s plans, no government entity would be compelled to sell naming rights to any given property. And governments would still have the ability to name memorials after notable people for free.
She said money raised would go toward the renamed facilities and that the proposals would leave up to local control issues including who gets to buy the names, how the rights would be sold and how names would be displayed.
The measures would not allow obscene or offensive names. Nor would they allow names of tobacco or cannabis companies.
Angel said her bills put to legislators the question: If we so desperately need revenue, why not give it a try?
“Nothing ventured,” she added, “nothing gained.”