RICHMOND, Va. – The Virginia General Assembly is abandoning for the year legislation intended to lure the NFL's Washington Commanders to the state, a top lawmaker said Thursday.
The legislation offering hefty tax incentives had already been languishing amid a series of controversies involving the team when an assistant coach called the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol “a dust-up.”
The remarks made by Jack Del Rio on Wednesday caused several key lawmakers to pull their support, and Democratic Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said Thursday there were too many pending “issues” for the legislation to proceed.
It could be reintroduced next year, said Saslaw, who has championed the stadium and sponsored one version of the legislation.
The team, which currently plays in Maryland and has been exploring new stadium possibilities for several years, said in a statement that it supported the legislature's decision to “more deeply examine this issue.”
"We look forward to continued engagement and open dialogue with stakeholders across the Commonwealth to share our vision and hear directly from communities on their economic development objectives and how we can be a trusted, reliable partner to realize those outcomes," the statement said.
The team maintained that the new venue project would be a “remarkable economic development opportunity.”
A day earlier, Saslaw said Del Rio's comments were “not helpful” but indicated he planned to continue pressing for the passage of the legislation. Del Rio apologized after initially doubling down on a comparison he made on social media between the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
The remarks from the former linebacker who now runs Washington’s defense prompted a quick backlash that included several key lawmakers from northern Virginia renouncing their support.
Differing versions of legislation that would have helped the team finance a Virginia stadium cleared both chambers of the General Assembly this year, drawing an unusual bipartisan mix of supporters. But defectors had begun to raise concerns even before Del Rio’s remarks, worrying about the transportation impacts of a potential project in an area already notorious for congestion, as well as the fiscal impact of the tax benefits the legislation would offer. One version initially had no cap on the amount of taxes the team would have been allowed to recover.
Ongoing investigations into the team by attorneys general and Congress focused on both the team's workplace culture and allegations of financial improprieties — which the Commanders have denied — didn't help either.
“You've got the attorney general's thing, you've got all the congressional stuff, other issues to be answered. We decided that it will just remain in conference,” Saslaw said, meaning the measure won’t get another vote.
Republican Del. Barry Knight, who sponsored the House version of the legislation, said in a statement he agreed with Saslaw's decision to let the bill die. He said it had become clear the legislation was not in taxpayers' best interest.
The Commanders' lease at FedEx Field, which lacks charm, convenience and many modern amenities despite being less than 30 years old, expires in 2027. When an investigation into Washington’s workplace misconduct prompted a $10 million fine levied in July 2021, the team said owner Dan Snyder had stepped away from day-to-day operations to focus on the stadium efforts, which have proven unsuccessful to this point.
Maryland has been unwilling to commit public money to a stadium development, while both Virginia and the District of Columbia have been interested in luring the team away.
But the District also appears to be off the table for now after a majority of the D.C. Council on Thursday ruled out using the site of the old RFK Stadium to house the Commanders. Councilmember Charles Allen said the D.C. government “unequivocally” won’t support using that land for a new football stadium, which would appear to sideline a popular choice for Snyder and the organization. The stadium was the team's longtime home but is no longer functional.
Phil Mendelson, chairman of the D.C. Council, who was not one of the seven members who sent a letter to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton ruling out the RFK site, said it does not represent a final decision. But Mendelson told The Associated Press on Thursday that the majority of members opposing using that land for a stadium takes it out of consideration for now.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan and lawmakers support developing the area around FedEx Field but not paying for a new stadium. Hogan signed a measure in April that would make up to $400 million in bonds available for development around the stadium in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, whether the team stays or not.
A county plan calls for developing the area into a transit hub with new residential, retail and entertainment amenities. The law authorizes the Maryland Stadium Authority to use money from the state lottery to build infrastructure in the county.
Knight, the powerful chairman of the Virginia House Appropriations Committee, seemed to maintain a degree of skepticism about a Virginia stadium project all year, despite carrying his chamber's version of the bill.
“I know they’re good business people," he told AP of the team earlier this year. “And I know they're leveraging each site against the other one to try to get the best deal.”
Hogan said Thursday that the latest developments in Virginia and D.C. came as no surprise “whatsoever” and that he assumed the team would be staying in Maryland.
Associated Press writer Brian Witte contributed to this report.