BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Two years after a contract appeared near to keep the Saints football team in New Orleans for decades, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is trying to persuade legislative leaders to commit to putting up the cash for Superdome upgrades central to those plans.
The Edwards administration agreed that Louisiana would steer $90 million toward the $450 million renovation project, but much of the financing still needs legislative approval.
“We’ve got to get it done by the end of the year,” said the Democratic governor’s chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne.
Dardenne is proposing that more than two-thirds of that money come from forgiving outstanding debts owed by the Superdome oversight board, the Louisiana Stadium, and Exposition District.
But that $63 million debt forgiveness plan appears to face problems with the State Bond Commission, the key financial panel that has to approve the debt relief. Among those resistant to the idea is Senate President Page Cortez, a powerful Lafayette Republican who sits on the commission. He told The Associated Press he will oppose the effort.
The commission is expected to discuss the debt proposal Thursday.
The $450 million in upgrades to the nearly 50-year-old iconic domed stadium in downtown New Orleans — with expanded club and suite levels, new concession stands, viewing decks, and other improvements — was part of a plan aimed at keeping the Saints in New Orleans through 2055.
The state’s current lease with the NFL team expires in 2025, though Saints owner Gayle Benson has pledged she intends to keep the club in New Orleans long-term.
The Superdome improvement plan calls for the state to cover $90 million of the renovations, the Saints putting up $150 million and the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District paying $210 million. But while Edwards agreed to the financial arrangements, lawmakers have questioned whether the state should be paying for the stadium improvements or if that obligation should fall to the city of New Orleans.
Early phases of the renovation work are complete, but additional phases are pending.
“The lease with the Saints to extend their obligation until 2055 is not going to be signed until we know that the full financing is in place for the full renovation,” Dardenne said.
The Edwards administration plan would use $63 million from the debt forgiveness, combined with surplus cash or money from the construction budget to cover the remaining gap.
The debt owed by the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District stems from 2013, when the state refinanced a prior loan used to restore the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The district is making annual payments on the debt to the state through 2039. The Edwards administration proposal would end those payments so the district could instead invest that money into the Superdome upgrades.
“I think it sets a bad precedent,” Cortez said.
If lawmakers and other state officials on the Bond Commission don’t agree to forgive the debt, it’s unclear if lawmakers will agree to cover the full $90 million share of the Superdome improvements another way.
Treasurer John Schroder said he’d prefer lawmakers and Edwards use state surplus dollars to pay for the renovations, but he said he’d support the debt forgiveness proposal if legislative leaders and the governor reach a deal.
Schroder, a Republican, is chairman of the Bond Commission and lives in the New Orleans region. He said the Superdome is a state-owned building with events beyond Saints games that draw tourists from around the country and generate tax dollars for state coffers.
“I do look at the Dome as an iconic treasure of the state of Louisiana. It happens to be in the city of New Orleans,” Schroder said. “I believe we should invest” in the facility.
But Schroder said if lawmakers don’t support the debt forgiveness, they should tell the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District whether they intend to pay the $90 million share of the renovation cost.
“We need to give them an answer so they can plan properly. They’ve got contracts they need to do,” the treasurer said. “Let’s stop toying with it and let’s make a decision.”