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'This Is Fool's Gold': SC Senator Explains Legislative Stall On Bill To Incentivize Panthers Move

Bank of America Stadium in uptown Charlotte.

Updated: 5:30 p.m.

The Carolina Panthers are considering moving their team headquarters from Charlotte to York County.  Last month, lawmakers in the South Carolina House approved a bill that would create at least $115 million in tax breaks and other incentives to help encourage such a move.  

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster supports such a deal.

But the incentives legislation is currently hung up in the South Carolina Senate, where Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Democrat from Columbia, has questioned the state’s estimates of how much economic benefit South Carolina would actually reap from a Panthers relocation.  

Harpootlian spoke with “All Things Considered” host Mark Rumsey to explain the hold he put on the bill last month.

Mark Rumsey: What are your specific concerns about this proposed incentives package for the Panthers?

Dick Harpootlian: Well, it's just that the numbers don't add up. I hired my own economist who used to be the Department of Commerce's economist. Where the projections by the Department of Commerce say almost 6,000 jobs [will be] created, she says it's more like 200. These inflated numbers — for instance, the governor's office claim this would create over a 15 or 20 year period $4 billion in economic development. [The economist] would disagree with that dramatically.

And as a practical matter, it's buying a pig in a poke. We're asked to approve this deal without knowing — we have not seen one written document, one written agreement between the Panthers and South Carolina government.

Rumsey: Well let me just ask you — the variation in estimates, both of prospective economic impact and also job creation between what the current state Commerce Department estimates and what the economist whom you hired, Rebecca Gunnlaugsson (a former chief economist for the South Carolina Commerce Department), they're hugely apart. How do you explain those incredibly large differing estimates?

Harpootlian: Well, somebody is not telling the truth. This is "Truth Telling 101." It just seems to me that these numbers are so wacky.

Let's understand what's happening here. The Panthers are going to move their practice facility from Charlotte to South Carolina, and their corporate headquarters. Their estimate is 200 people [and jobs created]. These aren't jobs they are opening and then hiring local folks. These are folks who live in Charlotte who, for the most part, will stay in Charlotte and commute.

The players — most of whom will not build or relocate in South Carolina — will continue to live in Charlotte. Many of them live somewhere other than Charlotte, and merely rent an apartment or get a condo for the season.

So, once you peel that back, this idea of the 40-to-one multiplier that the Department of Commerce is using — it would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Let me ask you this — if this is really a multi-billion dollar deal, why isn't North Carolina playing for it? Why isn't Charlotte fighting us for it? And the reason is, this is fool's gold. This is a vanity project for the folks at the Department of Commerce and other elected officials who like the idea of having a pro-football facility in South Carolina, even if it costs hundreds of millions of dollars — of taxpayer dollars.

Rumsey: To continue probing a little bit about where you're coming from on this, your letter last week you wrote to Gov. McMaster saying that you couldn't support the use of public money on something like this without a crystal clear understanding of the purported merits of the deal. How would you like to get that clarity?

Harpootlian: Well, for instance, we know what the job numbers are that are coming. The exact job numbers — 200 or so folks. They say there will be a potential for a sports medical facility. How do we know that? Who's going to pay for it? They're going to have to get a certificate of need from the department, from DHEC (South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control) if it replicates or repeats other services available from York county and Charlotte hospitals.

So, I need to understand if that's just, oh, we'll do it if we can. Or is there some specific plan to do that? There'll be, they indicate, hotels and retail. How do we get to that? How does that assessment, how does that projection come? I'd like to see the facts behind that. Is it just pie in the sky?

And in addition, let's say for the sake of argument that the job credits that are being offered work and that York County — and it's their prerogative to give a fee in lieu of taxes which would you know cut the property taxes on the property used for this development. Let's assume we don't care about that.

We're talking about spending between $40 and $45 million for an interchange on Interstate 77 to accommodate this facility without the medical facility being developed, without the retail, without the tourist attractions. And basically, if it's initiated relatively quickly, we're gonna have a quicker way for the owner of the Panthers, the coach, and the team to get to practice.

It just seems to me before we spend that kind of money — $40 to $45 million — on an interchange, which by the way my district and Columbia needs that interchange. There are districts, in Charleston and Greenville and Spartanburg and plenty of other places on I-77, that need that interchange.

So if we're going to accommodate people, let's accommodate people that have a problem right now, not a pie in the sky projection for some time down the road.

Rumsey: Is there something specific about the proposal for a good sized incentives package — $115 million or more for the Panthers headed up by, you know, a billionaire owner. Is there something about that [incentives package] that just rubs you the wrong way?

Harpootlian: Well, there is something about the fact that we take the rich and make them richer. I just began looking at where the development dollars are being spent. They're not being spent in communities where we have 15 or 20 percent unemployment. You know what.

The whole idea here was to bring jobs to South Carolina to places that needed that job development. They're going to Charleston and Greenville and York — and the more populous counties get the bulk of the dollars.

Rumsey: You've been widely named in news reports as the lawmaker who is currently blocking this incentives legislation in the Senate. Is that accurate? How are you doing that?

Harpootlian: Well, under our rules, one senator can do what's called put their name on the bill or object to the bill. And it takes a two-thirds majority. There's some other technical ways to do it but basically, it takes two-thirds majority to get it into debate to get that hold off.

But in the next week or so sometime, I will take my name off the bill because I think every Senator ought to be able to express their opinion in a vote — a roll call vote — as to whether or not they think this is a good deal. You know, that's a vote they're going to have to explain to their constituencies. I can tell you I've been moving around my district talking to folks and I have yet to find anybody in my district that thinks this is a deal I should vote for.

Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.