Who are the Real Losers in the Rutgers Stadium Debacle?

The private fundraising effort to pay for a $30M shortfall in the financing of a $102M stadium expansion for Rutgers University has been a debacle. Less than $2M has been raised since the Governor and State Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) announced the initiative nearly a year ago. Governor Corzine, who is leading the effort, has donated $1M, the vast majority of the funds obtained to date. Meanwhile, even the strongest supporters of the idea, like Senator Lesniak, now say that the drive will result in far less than $30M and more like $10M, leaving a gaping $20M shortfall in funding. Interest-bearing short-term commercial loans are currently subsidizing the stadium expansion, creating further indebtedness.

Currently, the Rutgers Board of Governors is discussing how to make up the shortfall but the ideas on the table, including raising ticket prices, hiking tuition, and taking stadium revenues from other athletic programs, will likely not cover the shortfall and worse, will cripple the Rutgers athletic program and the University itself since fans are already balking at the increase in ticket prices this year and students are disturbed about the steep tuition hike last year.

It is my guess that the Rutgers Stadium debacle will eventually result in New Jersey taxpayers once again being left with the bill after November but well before the 2009 election. That way, the shortfall will be erased and it will not be done on the backs of students and ticket holders who would raise a significant public fuss. In addition, New Jersey voters might forget about the situation before they go to the polls to elect a Governor and many members of the State Legislature. That said, there is a good chance that Governor Corzine will be pilloried should the taxpayers wind up bailing out the Rutgers stadium project and, with his approval ratings in the gutter, he can be none too happy about it.

Given Corzine's very public leadership of this anemic fundraising drive, one must also question the Governor's stature and reach in the State of New Jersey. As a millionaire many times over with many millionaire friends, one would think raising the $30M would be child's play for the former Goldman Sachs head honcho. Either the Governor has not spent enough of his time and energies on procuring the funds or he is not able to raise the kind of money required. If it is the former, he will stand accused of shirking the responsibilities he took upon himself in pioneering the fundraising drive. If it is the latter, he may not have the money network he needs both to promote his candidacy for re-election and to help legislators that are on his side. His prospects for national office would similarly appear to be a non-starter. Of course, the Governor does have millions of his own that can be spent on his race and the races of his allies.

Finally, with the stadium expansion resulting in being able to eventually seat 14,000 more fans, the Governor, Rutgers, and our taxpayers have cause to worry about the football team's lackluster opening game. Should the Scarlet Knights not play up to expectations this year or in the future, we could have one very large, very expensive, and very empty stadium for years to come. Hopefully, the opener was simply a blip on an otherwise flawless season.

The real losers in the current stadium financial mess are the taxpayers of New Jersey and our Governor. The taxpayers, who are already overtaxed, will most likely pay for a good chunk of the stadium shortfall. The Governor, as leader of the fundraising drive, will take most of the blame, which is especially unfortunate for him given he is up for re-election in 2009. As his political future continues to dim, instead of personally bailing out the Rutgers stadium shortfall, Governor Corzine may be wise to direct more of his resources to the Obama presidential campaign, with the hope of leaving New Jersey government before the voters of New Jersey leave him at the alter.

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