Analysis: Edwards, Lawmakers Both Claim Wins in Saints Deal

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana’s new deal with the New Orleans Saints gives state legislative leaders a victory, with lower-than-expected payments to help cover Superdome renovations, the ending of a stadium manager debt that irked lawmakers and cuts to office lease costs for state agencies.

Gov. John Bel Edwards also gets to declare a win, striking an agreement that will lock the Saints into a deal to stay in New Orleans for years past the Democratic governor’s term — and possibly for decades longer.

Negotiations took more than two years. Approval of the central pieces of the plan came together Thursday, though a few details remain to be settled in later legislation. But while some Republican lawmakers privately groused about continuing to spend money that goes into helping the NFL team and its wealthy owner, those complaints weren’t aired publicly.

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Instead, the Bond Commission and the joint House and Senate budget committee quickly gave the necessary votes, while officials applauded the lower price tag for the state and the benefits of keeping the Saints in New Orleans.

Edwards issued a statement calling it a “great day not only for the city of New Orleans and the Saints, but for Louisiana and its economy.”

Republican Senate President Page Cortez thanked Saints owner Gayle Benson for agreeing to renegotiate terms of the stadium agreement and described it as “a better partnership” for the state and the NFL club.

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GOP House Speaker Clay Schexnayder called it a fair deal for Louisiana and the Saints.

And Treasurer John Schroder, the Republican Bond Commission chairman, posted on Twitter after the approvals: “The Superdome is an iconic facility but we must be sensitive to concerns of legislators in districts with major needs as well. Today’s action was a win-win for the state.”

That kind of broad praise for a financial deal can be tough to achieve in the Louisiana Capitol these days, and it took extensive, behind-the-scenes negotiations to reach that point.

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In August 2019, Edwards announced $450 million in planned upgrades to the nearly 50-year-old iconic Superdome, framing the improvements as critical to keeping the Saints in New Orleans through 2055. Louisiana’s lease with the NFL team was set to expire in 2025, though Benson had pledged to keep the club in New Orleans long-term.

But Republican legislative leaders balked at continuing pieces of the state’s existing lease arrangement with the Saints and raised objections to Edwards’ plan to have the state pay $90 million toward the Superdome renovations.

Those GOP lawmakers temporarily stalled some construction budget financing the Edwards administration wanted for the renovations, though they later approved it. But they also refused a proposal to forgive a borrowing debt owed to the state by the Superdome manager, the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District.

Under the terms of the deal approved Thursday, the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District will pay off the debt to the state in a lump sum of $28 million, rather than seeing it forgiven. Meanwhile, the state will contribute up to $54 million toward the domed stadium improvements.

The state will use $27 million in federal coronavirus pandemic aid and $27 million through the state construction budget to put up 12% of the renovation costs.

That’s less than the $90 million originally proposed. And the final price tag could drop further.

The $27 million in federal aid would be returned to the state if hotel/motel tax dollars allocated to the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District rebound to certain levels by 2023. Those levels remain to be negotiated and set into legislation.

“We want to be frugal in how much we put into this,” said Cortez, of Lafayette.

Plus, the Saints have agreed to reduce the rent charged of state agencies in a Benson-owned office building to market value, rather than the higher-than-average lease arrangements currently in place, said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief negotiator on the deal.

The Superdome renovations — which include expanded club and suite levels, new concession stands, viewing decks and other improvements — began in 2020 and are expected to wrap up before the Super Bowl is held in the stadium in February 2025.

As part of the new deal, the Saints have committed to sign an agreement keeping the team in New Orleans through 2035, with four five-year extension options through 2055 if the full Superdome renovations are completed.

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