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Calgary new arena deal was driven by politics

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Duane Bratt is a political science professor and chair, Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies, at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

On Tuesday, Calgary City Council approved the deal for a new National Hockey League arena. It was a three-way partnership between the City of Calgary, Calgary Flames owner Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. and the Calgary Stampede Board. The cost of the project, estimated at $550-million, would be evenly split between the City and the Flames, with the City retaining ownership of the building, and the Flames operating it (and getting most of the revenue from it) for 35 years. There are also some side deals, involving land options for the Flames. There has been plenty of economic analysis, from supporters, opponents, and economists.

But the arena deal was as much about politics as it was about economics.

There have been four fundamental political variables at play.

First, the decision to spend $275-million (or more) of taxpayer’s money on the arena, occurred in a time of a lingering economic downturn in Calgary. Last week, City Council voted for $60-million in spending cuts that affected fire, police, transportation, and other services.

In addition, more than a month ago, a property-tax revolt led City Council to rollback an expected increase in small-business taxes outside of the downtown core. Finally, there have been prominent business people, and the new provincial government, who argued that the city should pause the construction of the new multibillion Green LRT line because it was too financially risky. Monday, City Council approved the Green LRT line with some conditions. Even proponents of the arena, such as Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Councillor Jeff Davison (who chaired the negotiations committee), recognized that the timing presented really bad political optics for signing off on a new arena.

Second, was the decision to limit public consultation to only a week at the end of July. The lack of public consultation was surprising, given the amount of consultation for other high-profile infrastructure projects, such as the new downtown library, the airport tunnel, and the Green LRT line. Supporters of the deal argued that since Calgarians have been debating the idea of a new arena since 2015, there was nothing more to add. A replacement for the Saddledome, jointly funded by the City and the Flames, was always the project, but the devil was in the details. (Even now, there exist many unanswered questions: Who is responsible for cost overruns, who is responsible for major renovations, what is the penalty if the Flames break the 35-year lease, what is the economic impact of the land options, etc.?)

The real reason for the rush to decision, is that all negotiating parties, and especially the Flames, did not want time for opposition to the deal to coalesce. This had occurred over previous arena proposals (such as CalgaryNext in 2015) as well as the bid to host the Olympics in 2026. It was felt that time would allow critics to poke holes in the project and mobilize opposition.

A third political variable concerns the 2021 mayoral election. It is widely anticipated that Mr. Nenshi, whose popularity has dropped to below 40 per cent in his third term, will not run for re-election. This has meant jockeying from a number of Councillors. Whether they are for or against the new arena, many have been using this high-profile decision to raise their stature, get media attention, raise money, and acquire supporters.

And the rivalry with Edmonton cannot be dismissed. In 2016, Edmonton got a nice shiny new arena, and corresponding redevelopment in its downtown Ice District. Calgarians looked at Rogers Place in jealousy because the Saddledome had become the oldest arena in the NHL. The iron law of Alberta politics is that if Edmonton gets something new, then Calgary must, too.

In addition, Rogers Place received significant public funding from the City of Edmonton. When the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Montreal Canadiens all built their current arenas, it was done with 100-per-cent private funding. But those comparisons did not register with Calgarians. What mattered is what Edmonton got. The fact that Edmonton had a much greater need to revitalize its downtown than Calgary needed to revitalize the East Village was irrelevant. The fact that economic times were good when the Edmonton deal was ratified, and times were bad in Calgary, was also irrelevant. What mattered was ensuring that Calgary would get whatever Edmonton got, and it had to be better, too.

Ultimately, it was politics, not economics that drove the arena decision. If there are no surprises in the numbers and the Calgary arena is better than Rogers Place, then opposition will disappear (as it did with the Peace Bridge and downtown library).

But if damaging economic details emerge from the deal or the Calgary arena is worse than Rogers Place, then there will be political hell to pay for the Councillors who supported the deal.

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Marijuana legalization gets lost in the weeds

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Five Democratic states are poised to create a pot lovers’ paradise, legalizing marijuana from Pennsylvania to Connecticut.

But political infighting — especially among Democrats — could conspire to kill it.

Democratic lawmakers in New York and New Jersey are arguing over criminal justice reforms. In Connecticut, powerful religious leaders torpedoed legalization once before. And all five states must find common ground on taxes to keep up with Massachusetts, where marijuana is already legal.

The political turmoil over marijuana comes as five northeastern Democratic governors announced last month that they had reached an agreement to fully legalize marijuana. Three of the states — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where Democrats are in complete control of the government — already have spent months squabbling over the specifics of complex legislation that would legalize cannabis sales.

The sharp divisions among rank-and-file lawmakers are unlikely to recede simply because the states’ governors reached a handshake agreement on broad guardrails for legalizing marijuana.

“There are a lot of details that need to get resolved and different viewpoints on the details,” said New York Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, who represents Manhattan.

“Last year there were a lot of big complex issues eating up a lot of time that, I think, made resolving marijuana legislation more difficult.”

Just one state — Illinois — has passed legislation establishing recreational sales. The other nine states that allow adults to buy weed for any reason have done so through ballot referendums. The legislative process has proven much messier. Instead of a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down from voters, every single lawmaker has an opportunity to weigh in on what legislation should look like.

The prospects for passing legalization anytime soon in Pennsylvania look particularly bleak. While Gov. Tom Wolf is a recent convert to the cause, both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans, and they’ve shown little interest in pursuing recreational marijuana sales.

“The reality is they don’t have the votes,” said Kevin Sabet, CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has been fighting legalization efforts around the country. “This is definitely not a slam dunk in any of these states. Pennsylvania — it’s a complete pipe dream that they would get this done in the legislature.”

What’s in the agreement?

The five governors only agreed on broad principles to guide their efforts. Chief among the policy recommendations is setting a similar tax rate on cannabis sales as a means of leveling the market across the region. The five governors also pledged to limit the number of licenses for cannabis businesses, craft policies to prioritize the inclusion of small business owners, develop criminal justice reform programs to improve the lives of ex-offenders and develop uniform law enforcement and public health standards for policing the industry.

Most lawmakers who support legalization praised the governors for leading on the issue. The summit was prompted in part by concerns about the vaping crisis, which has sickened more than 2,000 people and led to at least 39 deaths, according to the CDC. Most of the lung illnesses have been tied to THC vapes, primarily from the black market.

“People realize the time has come,” said New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a top legalization advocate. “The fact that it hasn’t been legalized and regulated allows the black market to put products out there that we know are hurting people.”

But the broad framework agreed to is unlikely to make it much easier to reach accord on specific policy details.

“We are going to be losing serious economic activity,” added Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), the lead sponsor of legalization legislation, pointing out that New York state residents are already buying weed from legal dispensaries. “If you go to a cannabis store in the Berkshires — a half hour from Albany — you can’t help but notice all of the license plates are from New York in the parking lot.”

Current legislative proposals diverge on policy details

The cannabis legalization proposals that have emerged from each state are unique. New Jersey’s legislation, agreed to by each of the state’s top Democrats after months of negotiation, would tax cannabis at $42 per ounce at the cultivation level. Local municipalities could impose their own taxes as well. Legislation advanced in Connecticut, which was never voted on, would have imposed a $35 per ounce tax on cultivators, plus local fees and a sales tax. Recent legislation introduced by Pennsylvania lawmakers would levy a 17.5 percent tax at the point-of-sale.

“In terms of setting a goal of being as unified as possible, that is a worthwhile exercise,” said Connecticut state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, who co-chairs the House Joint Committee on Judiciary. “Do I suspect, at the end of the day, that there will be certain pieces of this that one state wants to do one way, and other states want to do another way?

“Of course.”

A half-dozen Democratic lawmakers and staff members in Connecticut who spoke with POLITICO indicated it would be an uphill battle just to get a cannabis legalization measure over the finish line, regardless of whatever agreement Gov. Ned Lamont hatched with his counterparts in the Northeast.

A package of three bills that would have legalized cannabis, designated new programs for marijuana-related tax revenues and blazed new criminal justice reforms collapsed after facing resistance from the state’s black and Latino faith leaders. And while lawmakers briefly floated the idea of moving a bill that would have created a ballot question on adult-use, that also stalled.

“I confess, and this is probably a good example probably of white privilege, I didn’t appreciate the ingrained resistance to legalization from communities that have been battling [with] it for so long,” said state Rep. Mike D’Agostino, a Democrat committee chairman who represents the New Haven suburbs. “We need to do a good job of going out and listening. And also saying, ‘Here’s what’s in our bills. Here’s how we’re trying to address the social justice concerns and the economic concerns.’”

Perhaps just as importantly, efforts to legalize adult use in other states require some level of common understanding between lawmakers and the chief executive.

Pennsylvania‘s Wolf publicly announced his support for cannabis legalization in September, a little less than a month before the multi-state framework was released. His appearance on the dais alongside Cuomo, Lamont and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Oct. 17 was a surprise to state Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat who introduced an adult use bill earlier this year.

“Was the Legislature consulted? No,” Leach told POLITICO, adding that he supported any effort on the part of Wolf to “move the ball forward.”

“There may be places where things fit together, and places where they don’t,” Leach said. “Each state needs to concentrate primarily on getting a law passed that works for our state.”

If the five northeastern states are able to overcome the formidable hurdles they face and create a sprawling five-state marijuana marketplace, it could create a tipping point in the legalization debate nationwide, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. That would mean nearly half the country would be living in states where anyone over the age of 21 can buy weed for whatever purpose they choose.

“It becomes increasingly untenable,” O’Keefe said, “to have all of this conduct be federally illegal when you have nearly 150 million people living in states where it’s legal and regulated.”

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The billionaires funding politics, ranked by size of donation in 2018

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Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Adelson gave more money to political candidates than any other Americans in 2018.

A small group of ultra-wealthy Americans pumps a lot of money into politics.

We took a look at the top 25 donors who funded American politics in 2018 and found that the list consists of, among others, an assortment of financiers, heirs, and entrepreneurs.

The contributions of some of the largest donors — such as Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, George Soros and Tom Steyer — are well known, while other donors, like Jeff Bezos, are better known for their careers.

Interestingly, one well-known political donors — Charles Koch — did not make the list. Koch and his now-deceased brother David donated $1,816,650 to Republicans through their company Koch industries in 2018, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. To make this list, their donations would have needed to top $6.5 million.

Business Insider previously reported that public affairs rank as the eighth-most popular cause that billionaires donate to. Only 12.4% of billionaires reported making donations to politics in 2018, according to Wealth-X‘s 2019 Billionaire Census.

Collectively, the 25 billionaires and billionaire couples on the list totaled a whopping $ in political donations in 2018, data from The Center for Responsive Politics shows.

Keep reading to learn more about the country’s biggest political donors, ranked in order of their donations during the 2018 election cycle by The Center for Responsive Politics. Each donor’s net worth, where available, was sourced from Forbes unless otherwise specified. Their party affiliations are listed according to The Center for Responsive Politics.

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Pallister says Canada can unite on climate action if partisan politics set aside

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Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press


Published Friday, November 8, 2019 12:17PM EST


Last Updated Friday, November 8, 2019 1:58PM EST

OTTAWA — Giving clear indications that he’s prepared to broker a truce between the federal Liberals and his more disgruntled Prairie counterparts, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he offered strategies to the prime minister Friday for uniting the country.

“I came in peace,” Pallister said after a 45-minute meeting with Justin Trudeau in his Parliament Hill office.

“I’m a friendly Manitoban looking to help in any way I can to restore a sense of faith in the future of our country.”

One such strategy Pallister eluded to was to turn the climate change debate on its head, making the issue a unifying force rather than what it has been so far — a point of heated and often partisan division.

“Fighting climate change is a unifying project,” Pallister insisted while criticizing Trudeau for making it a wedge issue in the recent federal election.

“A political leader can divide. A prime minister should unite,” he said.

“So, as we move forward, we should unite around fighting climate change and we should not be caught up in a debate about a subset of a subset,” referring to Ottawa’s insistence on a national carbon tax as a central plank of any plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Trudeau’s relationship with many provincial premiers is tense, particularly over his decision to impose a price on pollution in any province without an equivalent system of its own, including Manitoba.

Pallister opposes Trudeau’s plan, but not carbon taxes in general and is still hoping the prime minister will allow provinces to create their own plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The prime minister acknowledged the divide between his government’s policies and those of Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe in a news conference the day after the federal Liberals were reduced to a minority in the House of Commons without a single seat in the two provinces.

And he promised to support the West as it faces economic struggles, particularly in the oil patch.

In the days that have followed the Oct. 21 vote, a simmering separatist movement in Alberta has gained momentum under the Wexit umbrella, a name seemingly created to mimic the Brexit movement aimed at separating Britain from the European Union.

The group’s founder, Peter Downing, earlier this week filed paperwork with Elections Canada to form a federal Wexit Alberta party that could, in his words, do for Western Canada what the Bloc Quebecois does for Quebec.

Pallister said he sees frustrations building in the West, not just around a failure to build pipelines to get western energy products to international markets outside of the United States, but also over the perceived snail’s pace of getting just about any other project underway. He blamed it on federal regulations designed to protect the environment.

To alleviate some of those frustrations, Pallister said Ottawa needs to “get things done,” such as building infrastructure that will mitigate the effects of climate change.

“The mayor of Calgary, for example, has raised concerns as I have repeatedly about flood protections that we need to get built,” Pallister said.

“We’re trying to build flood protection to give people their lives back in our province but we’ve been, after hundreds of meetings and millions of dollars, we’re not sure we’re getting as much progress as I would like.”

Just before he and Pallister went into their private meeting, Trudeau told the premier he hoped the two leaders could work together on a number of fronts.

“Obviously there’s a need to continue to invest, to grow opportunities for Manitobans . . . through infrastructure including climate change mitigation and adaptation infrastructure,” Trudeau said during a photo op.

Pallister said he and the prime minister also spoke about ways to improve the lives of Indigenous Canadians in his province as well as the recent spike in the number of homicides and violent gang and drug-related crimes in Manitoba.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2019.

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