E ast Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden, whose gift for hyperbole would make P.T. Barnum blush, called the recent Miss USA pageant at the city’s River Center “one of the greatest nights in the history of this country.”
If the pageant was a landmark national event for the ages, as the mayor suggests, then it was a spectacle that few Americans saw. Television viewership for the event was the lowest ever this year, thanks to real-estate mogul-turned-pageant owner-turned-presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose verbal excesses on the campaign trail prompted NBC to drop the contest from its lineup. The pageant was shown instead on the Reelz network, a small cable outfit that attracted fewer than a million viewers for the event, according to the Nielsen ratings. That’s a far cry from the 5.6 million viewers who watched the pageant last year.
The mayor was right to salute the many people who worked hard to stage the pageant in Baton Rouge. Events like this are labor-intensive, and many Baton Rougeans both inside and outside of government spent lots of time and energy to host the contestants. We’re proud of that.
That kind of commitment should be properly rewarded. We’re not sure, though, that the contractual arrangements between local and state governments and the pageant fully protected taxpayers’ interests. Baton Rouge government and state agencies pledged a total of $545,000 to the event, and the lion’s share of that came from city-parish coffers. Miss USA also could be eligible for a huge state tax credit for this year’s pageant. Last year, the pageant got $1.25 million through the state’s film tax credit program.
Officials lavished cash on the pageant with the assumption that it would be a marquee attraction on a major national broadcast network. Trump’s rhetorical train wreck derailed all that, and at least some of the officials overseeing the cash incentives appear to have a little buyer’s remorse.
Holden has bluntly declared the pageant a smashing success and pledged to stand by the incentive agreement he presumably helped engineer. It’s possible that the city-parish’s agreement with the pageant gives him little choice. Visit Baton Rouge, the city’s tourism agency, controls a small share of the incentives and has yet to pay the remaining $75,000 it promised the pageant. The agency’s board is slated to mull its options at an upcoming meeting. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne oversees $65,000 in promised incentives for the pageant and is considering how much of those incentives to pay.
The pageant didn’t deliver what it was supposed to, and that should be reflected in what taxpayers here are required to pony up. We hope local and state officials write smaller checks to Trump and Co.
Meanwhile, there’s a lesson here for the future. When local and state governments roll out the red carpet for events like this, the contracts governing these incentives need to clearly specify what taxpayers can expect in return.