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Lawmakers seek tax breaks for sports

A pair of bills introduced late this year would bestow tax benefits on narrowly defined sports interests in the state with little evidence of significant economic benefit.

One bill, backed by Republicans, aims to help privately owned golf courses that are open to the public. The second, backed by Democrats, would give a tax break to minor-league baseball teams that aren’t affiliated with a Major League club. Both were introduced in a year when Ohio grappled with its most difficult budget this generation.

GOP Sen. Bob Gibbs introduced the bill to help for-profit, daily fee golf courses last month. It proposes giving county auditors alternatives for assessing the value of golf courses as they go up for sale, and defines a host of fixed golf course assets such as cart paths and irrigation systems as nontaxable property.

Gibbs says the bill brings state and federal tax laws into sync, and would make golf courses’ tax bills more consistent from year to year. It is similar to legislation the courses have pushed successfully in other states.

Then, a couple days before Christmas, a pair of Democratic state lawmakers delivered an early present to Ohio’s fledgling independent baseball movement: a proposed tax exemption on stadiums used by these independent teams.

“Other states are not placing a tax on stadiums associated with independent teams,” said Rep. Matt Lundy of Elyria when the bill was unveiled. “By offering this exemption, Ohio would have the same competitive advantage as other states in their effort to attract an independent baseball team to their region.”

The bill, jointly introduced with state Sen. Sue Morano of Lorain, would extend a tax break already given to recreational facilities that host Major League farm teams to teams in the independent leagues. The tax break is intended to help the emerging Frontier League’s the Lake Erie Crushers in northeast Ohio and its baseball brethren.

The Ohio Department of Development keeps no statistics on the state’s sports and recreation economy down to this level, said spokesman Bob Grevey. The rough economy has generally been spurring more close-to-home recreation, however.

Kail Padgitt, a staff economist with the nonpartisan Taxation Foundation in Washington, D.C., said both bills appear to benefit very specific targets.

“The standard story an economist would tell you is this is a special interest group at work and someone trying to grant some favors through the tax code,” he said. “It’s done in a smart way because both these bills are so narrowly defined that you’re giving the special interest groups these tax exemptions and no one else.”

The National Golf Course Owners Association has been pushing since 2004 for the elimination of government subsidies, tax abatements, water use agreements and other forms of preferential treatment for public golf courses, according to its Web site.

The Ohio bill would treat the property of public and private courses more equitably for tax purposes.

“The NGCOA Board of Directors believes that all golf courses should play on a level playing field and object to governmental entities offering such advantages. The existence of these unfair advantages disrupts the private enterprise system,” the group’s statement reads. “It is our preference that no federal, state, municipal or other public authority should be involved in direct competition with private enterprise in the development or operation of golf facilities.”

Ohio has an admittedly short track record with independent baseball, meanwhile. The Crushers, Ohio’s only team, have played just one season. But Lundy and Morano see potential in the enthusiastic early reception.

“My family and I enjoy going to the Lake Erie Crushers games at All Pro Freight Stadium in Avon,” Morano said when introducing the bill. “This activity should be available to families across the state.” She and Lundy say several other Ohio communities are attempting to establish teams and the stadium tax exemption could provide needed help.

Padgitt is skeptical.

“It’s hard to imagine that a tax exemption on these things is going to be able to produce more golf courses or more stadiums,” he said.

Julie Carr Smyth is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.