Rep. Kenny Havard said the New Orleans Saints' division championship and playoff victory haven't changed his mind about seeking to claw back state funding that supports Louisiana’s NFL team and its owner Tom Benson.
“Until we stop giving away money to the Saints and other big businesses we can all just sit in traffic and have the dumbest damn kids in the nation,” said Havard, R-St. Francisville, referring to a lack of funding for infrastructure and education.
Havard’s public effort to retrieve at least a portion of the Saints' state incentives was triggered by some members of the team taking a knee during the national anthem early in the season to raise awareness to what the players perceive as social injustice.
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The team later decided to take a knee before the anthem but stand during the “Star Spangled Banner.”
State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, joined Havard in questioning funding for the Saints and asked that it be taken up by the Joint Budget Committee, which hasn’t yet happened.
Havard said he will specifically seek to remove from next year’s state budget the contract that pays Benson about $2 million more than the market value of 323,000 square feet of space the state leases in Benson Tower in New Orleans.
The lease, which was negotiated by former Gov. Bobby Jindal and approved by the Legislature in 2009, was part of a deal to keep the Saints in Louisiana through 2025.
Figures from a 2014 Legislative Auditor's report show the state pays $25 per square foot ($8.1 million) annually for the Benson Tower office space, while the average going price for such office space and parking is $19 per square foot, a difference of almost $2 million.
“I’ll try to amend it out of (Appropriations Bill) on the floor if I have to,” Havard said. “How can we pay above appraised value on a lease when it’s against the law for us to buy property above its appraised value?”
Havard said though the anthem controversy helped fuel his objection, “the lease and the other subsidies should have never been done to begin with.”
“I used the anthem as a platform to focus on the money we give away to big businesses in this state like the Saints and Tom Benson, one of the 50 richest people in America, and other companies like Exxon,” he said.
Havard said he received “a number of calls people who can’t believe what we do for these big businesses but nothing for the mom and pop operations.
"It woke everybody else up to all of the exemptions and exclusions that allow big businesses to get almost a free ride,” he said. “Big business needs to pay more.”
About $165 million of the Saints $1.5 billion value can be attributed to public funding, tax breaks and incentives given to Saints owner Tom Benson each year, according to a previous analysis by The Times-Picayune.
But Havard said he will focus on the Benson Tower lease first.
“That’s the easiest to get to, but I’m hoping we look at all of the funding for the Saints,” he said.
Since Havard isn’t a member of the Appropriations Committee that crafts the annual budget, he’s hoping to enlist the help of state Rep. Steve Pylant, who is a member of the committee.
“We’re supposed to get together and see what we can do,” said Pylant, R-Winnsboro. “Were looking at it, but so far I haven’t made a commitment.”
A member of the committee has a much better chance of affecting the Appropriations Bill than someone who isn't on the panel.
Hodges, also a member of the committee, hasn’t returned a call from USA Today Network, but following the anthem controversy she issued her objections in a press release.
“I am for First Amendment rights, but there is a time and a place to protest," Hodges said. "We will not tolerate blatant disregard for the flag and the lives of so many men and women who have died defending our country. I have to wonder, if they will not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, who is their allegiance to?”
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1