B may tax visiting players
By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
This is the second in a series of articles taking
a closer look at ''Plan B,'' the financing mechanism
proposed by Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials to
pay for new baseball and football stadiums and the
expansion of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Today's installment is about a tax on the salaries of
professional athletes who live out of state. City and
county officials have proposed a 1 percent tax on that
portion of an athlete's salary related to his play in
Pittsburgh. The proceeds would be used to raise $7
million of the projected $803 million needed for the
Q. Who would pay the tax?
A. Right now, professional football, baseball and
hockey players who live out of state would be responsible
for paying the tax. It is undecided whether other types
of professional athletes -- figure skaters, golfers,
marathoners, etc. -- would be subject to the tax.
Q. How would the tax work?
A. The athletes would have to pay a 1 percent tax on that
portion of their wages related to their play in
Pittsburgh. That means your favorite Steeler, Pirate or
Penguin would be taxed if he didn't live in Pennsylvania,
as would a lot of visiting players. Conversely, a member
of the hated Dallas Cowboys could avoid the tax simply by
living here, or in Altoona, for that matter.
Q. I like the idea of sticking it to these
nonresident athletes. How much of their big paydays can
we get our hands on?
A. It depends. The intent is to tax that fraction of the
player's salary he earns playing here. But the city and
county still must decide whether they're going to tax
game days or duty days.
Q. What's the difference?
A. The game day approach is pretty simple: Let's say one
of those hated Cowboys makes $1.6 million a year and
plays 16 games, one of them at Three Rivers Stadium. He
would be taxed here on $100,000 ($1.6 million divided by
16) and would have to pay $1,000.
Duty days refer to the number of days the player is
practicing or playing football, including preseason and
playoff games. Let's say our Cowboy practices or plays
180 days out of the year. And let's assume he is in
Pittsburgh for two of them. His tax bill would be $176.
Q. How much would the tax generate?
A. About $790,000 a year. The money would be used to make
the payments on $7 million in bonds, which is part of the
$803 million kitty for the stadiums and bigger convention
Q. Sounds great. Why haven't we socked it to
these guys before?
A. The city considered taxing visiting players in the
late 1970s and the early 1980s but decided against it. At
the time, city officials thought that if they taxed
athletes they would have to tax all entertainers to
withstand uniformity challenges. And they feared a tax on
concert earnings of, say, the Rolling Stones or Luciano
Pavarotti would drive them outside of the city
Q. So, entertainers would be taxed under the
A. No. Lawyers at Thorp Reed & Armstrong, which is
advising the city and the county on the matter, believe
the city has the ability to tax athletes only -- and in
this case, just baseball, football and hockey players.
Q. Can the city and county get away with that?
A. That's a matter of opinion. Thorp Reed lawyers say
yes. They said courts have determined that such
distinctions can be drawn if there is a ''rational''
basis for doing so, and that a city can take into account
the costs of collection in determining who should be
taxed. They said a proposed Plan B players' tax should
meet those standards.
Others are less sure. Marvin Fein, a former deputy city
solicitor under the late Mayor Caliguiri, said the city
and county may be able to get around uniformity
requirements in terms of entertainers but could have a
harder time with the proposal to tax only certain
In fact, Ira Weiss, solicitor for the Pittsburgh School
District, said there is a ''serious uniformity problem''
with the proposal. He said he doesn't believe the city
can tax just one group of athletes, nor does he believe
it has the power to tax nonresidents without state
legislative approval. ''I don't see how, under current
law, that tax can survive,'' he said.
Q. Do other cities tax nonresident players?
A. Yes. According to city and county officials,
Philadelphia, Kansas City, Detroit, New York City and
Cleveland impose similar taxes on athletes. But
Philadelphia, for instance, taxes all entertainers, not
just athletes. So do Cleveland and Detroit, according to
Thorp Reed lawyer Sidney J. Kelly.
Q. What do the Steelers and Pirates have to say
about the proposal?
A. Both are taking a wait-and-see approach. At the March
9 Plan B news conference, Steelers Vice President Art
Rooney II said, ''As long as it's something that would
not put us at a competitive disadvantage, and it's
something that's ... similar to what they have in other
cities, we'll look at it.''
The Pirates' Steve Greenberg, vice president of ballpark
development, said, ''We're willing to look at it, but
until we see something in writing, it would be
inappropriate to comment.''
(Do you have questions about the components of Plan B?
If so, send them to Dissecting Plan B, c/o Local News,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies,