Public Olympic funding should be transparent for Utahns

Most people understand the notion that nothing is truly free. The free meals and other perks in that fancy office at work could be translated into larger paychecks. The store promotion is almost certainly being covered by higher prices because businesses have to make a profit. So why then do we so often fall for promises that we can receive something for nothing? 

Recently the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games released its $4 billion budget for the 2034 Olympic bid with the promise that the entire budget will be funded privately through domestic sponsorships, ticket sales, and hospitality opportunities. Significantly, the Committee continues to promise that no state or local funding will be needed to host the Games again.

What’s the problem, you ask? The Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games is not being entirely honest with Utahns and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent preparing for a future Olympics. 

In December of last year, lawmakers on the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Coordination Committee received an update on “current and future appropriations to the Olympic and Paralympic Venues Grant Fund.” In the memo they were provided, it clearly outlines over $96 million of taxpayer funds that have been set aside by state lawmakers over the course of six years to fund renovations to Olympic venues in the name of being ready for a future Games. With ten years left until an anticipated Olympic Games takes place in 2034, it’s easy to imagine the appropriations continuing and possibly increasing as additional needs are identified as they get closer—lawmakers have already said they anticipate spending over $140 million on venue improvements.

Despite the rhetoric surrounding the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics running a surplus, state and local funding was also required to stage those Olympics. Although the state was reimbursed for $59 million associated with Olympic venue construction, the State of Utah spent an additional $91 million on the Games and local governments spent $75 million. It is true that the Committee has penciled in a $210 contingency fund into the recently announced budget, but there is no guarantee that these funds will be exhausted nor that there will be any funding this time around to reimburse the State (let alone local governments) for their direct costs associated with preparing for or hosting a 2034 Olympics.

It was United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who famously stated that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Government transparency is a keystone of good governance, especially when it comes to how public dollars are spent. It helps not only ward off corruption, but allows the public to form opinions on how those funds should be spent. $96 million is a pretty significant amount of money that could have been directed toward various other needed programs or projects in the overall state budget. 

Speaking of public opinion, would the 79% support for a future Olympic Games drop in public support if Utahns knew and were told from the beginning that taxpayer dollars were actually going to be spent to renovate and improve venues in anticipation of a bid? When compared to an overall budget of $4 billion, $140 million becomes a much smaller sum, so perhaps such a disclosure and its impact on messaging wouldn’t have much of an impact. But one could imagine that conservative Utahns who have opinions on taxes might also have an opinion on whether those taxes should be used to subsidize winter sports venues that they never personally use.

When it comes down to it, Olympic Games organizers should have some integrity and be upfront with the public when public funds are being used because it’s the right thing to do, rather than trying to hide their use or explain it away. Utahns can support a 2034 Olympic Games and at the same time expect and demand transparency.

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