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Taxpayers could be on the hook for infrastructure around planned new Bears stadium, expert says

Could taxpayers be left with bill for any of new Bears stadium plan?
Could taxpayers be left with bill for any of new Bears stadium plan? 03:23

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Chicago Bears on Wednesday unveiled their multibillion-dollar plan for a new domed stadium on the lakefront, just south of their current home of Soldier Field—but it comes with a huge bill, and it remained unclear Wednesday how taxpayers might be on the hook for the cost of the surrounding infrastructure.

Mayor Brandon Johnson denied that the Bears' shiny new dome could end up costing taxpayers a pretty penny.

"What it does not call for are raising taxes, or implementing new taxes on residents of the city of Chicago," the mayor said.

He made this claim repeatedly.

"One more time, to make sure that everybody that—this project will result in no new taxes on the residents of Chicago," Johnson later added.

However, the project is not just the stadium itself. It will include the surrounding park area, and the infrastructure around the Museum Campus nearby.

The Bears are planning to contribute $2.3 billion, including a $300 million loan from the NFL, to the $3.2 billion cost of the stadium, and will seek $900 million in public funding through 40-year bonds issued by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which helped fund the 2002 renovation of Soldier Field, as well as the construction and renovations of Guaranteed Rate Field, the home of the White Sox.

The $900 million in public funding for the stadium would come from an existing 2% hotel tax that already goes to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.

The Bears also would ask to refinance existing debt from the prior work at Soldier Field and Guaranteed Rate Field.

That funding plan would require approval from the Illinois General Assembly.

Meanwhile, the surrounding infrastructure is expected to cost $1.5 billion—for a grand total of $4.7 billion for the plan.

"The infrastructure component of this, which is the place that is most immediately, directly and likely to be the taxpayer burden; to be the government financing burden," said Joe Ferguson, president of the Civic Federation.

Ferguson agreed that the infrastructure bill amounts to a hidden cost to the Chicago taxpayer.

Ferguson, a former Chicago Inspector General, also noted that the mayor issued his assurances that no new tax or tax hike would be involved in the Bears stadium plan while standing alongside the very Bears executives who are seeking public funding.

"The fact that the mayor was standing and essentially a part of this press conference should be a little bit concerning, because it suggests a kind of capture of city government before we've even gotten this out of the gate," Ferguson said.

Experts, officials concerned about public funding for proposed new Bears stadium 03:20

The Bears and the City of Chicago suggested they would ask the federal government to front at least some of the remaining bill.

"There's substantial infrastructure funding that comes from the federal government gets remitted to the state, and becomes available for projects around the state," Chicago Chief Financial Officer Jill Jaworski said Wednesday. "We will be working with the state to pursue those funds for the road work that's going to be needed."

Warren said he's hoping to get approval of the financing plan from the Illinois General Assembly this spring, and to begin construction in the summer of 2025. 

But experts worry about how the money might flow, depending on who sits in the Oval Office.

"Let's put a fine point on it," said Ferguson. "If Donald Trump is president, the federal spigot gets turned off—period."

There is also doubt over possible taxpayer funding for the infrastructure money in Springfield. Gov. JB Pritzker has said he's willing to consider the Bears' plans, but has voiced reluctance to provide public funding for the project.

"I remain skeptical about this proposal, and I wonder whether it's a good deal for the taxpayers," Pritzker said Wednesday morning at an unrelated event before the Bears' formal announcement. "It's very important to me that, with all that the state needs to accomplish, that we think about what the priorities are of the state."

Pritzker also noted that public financing for stadium deals has become more unpopular in recent years, pointing to Missouri voters earlier this month rejecting a proposed sales tax hike to help fund renovations to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, just months after the Chiefs won their third Super Bowl in five years.

"I think this is, you know, a recognition that these are private businesses; that the owners of these private businesses need to put a lot more forward in order to … have their dreams fulfilled, and not just rely upon the taxpayers of Illinois to make that happen for them," he said. "Having said that, I think all of us want success for the state. We want more commerce. We want more jobs. We want our teams to be successful. So, you know, we share all of that in common, but we've got to use our dollars wisely."

Bears unveil new plans for new stadium on Chicago lakefront; some have doubts 03:22

Justin Marlowe, a research professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy and director of the Center for Municipal Finance, said the plan is a start—but the funding gap will need to be addressed, and the state will need to be behind the project.

"Given what we heard today on the financing part, there's no way this happens without pretty strong support coming from Springfield," said Marlowe.

Bears president Kevin Warren cautioned that the time to get the stadium deal done is now. He believes the longer Chicago and Springfield wait, the more the cost will go up.

Warren said he looks forward to meeting with lawmakers in Springfield to iron out the details.

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