Vote delayed on S. Carolina bid for Panthers’ headquarters

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By Jeffrey Collings

Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina senators decided not to hold a key vote Tuesday on whether to give the Carolina Panthers tax breaks and incentives to move their practice fields out of North Carolina, as it became increasingly unclear if the bill could pass.

The key component of the proposal would offer about $115 million in state income tax breaks to the NFL team that it would have to use to build a new headquarters and indoor practice facility in South Carolina.

But Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian and a few other more conservative senators have continuously questioned whether Panthers billionaire owner David Tepper needs any public help.

Harpootlian paid for his own economic analysis of the deal that found the benefit to the state could be around $1 billion — less than a third of the estimate provided by the state Commerce Department. That prompted more senators to question the deal.

“We are supposed to protect the taxpayers from getting ripped off. We are the only people standing between them and this billionaire taking advantage of them,” the Democrat from Columbia said Tuesday.

The Panthers currently practice and play in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, just inside the state line. South Carolina is trying to bring them about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south.

Tepper bought the team last summer and a new indoor practice facility is a priority. Heavy rains late last season forced the Panthers to move practices to a hotel ballroom.

Tepper and other Panthers officials have said nothing publicly about the South Carolina offer, even after a private meeting with Gov. Henry McMaster and legislative leaders.

McMaster and the South Carolina House have pushed the bill hard, and the proposal passed the House 90-25 less than two weeks after it was announced.

Senators who support the bill said South Carolina has given these incentives and more to other companies without opposition and people are only upset because the Carolina Panthers are a well-known, newsmaking NFL team.

“What we are actually doing is fairly mundane,” said Republican Sen. Wes Climer, whose district likely includes the South Carolina site.

Harpootlian’s economic analysis also said the state’s estimates on how much money the Panthers’ move would bring in depended on every Panthers player and coach moving to South Carolina and spending their entire paychecks here.

Supporters acknowledged that made no sense, but said they will still pay taxes here no matter where they live and those taxes will be substantial once the incentives end in 15 years.

“Granted it is only 150 jobs, but the jobs pay a million dollars apiece,” said Republican Sen. Greg Gregory of Lancaster.

Even if the bill passes the Senate on Wednesday, there could be another hurdle based on an unrelated, ongoing feud with the governor. Senators tacked an amendment to the Panthers proposal changing the way McMaster handles appointments that require their approval.

The House has ignored the proposal about appointments so far this session, but will likely have to accept it to get the Panthers bill passed. If the bill gets to his desk, Gov. McMaster will face a similar dilemma deciding whether to sign it.