Billionaire Rex Sinquefield usually gets what he wants by spending big. An avid chess player, he poured tens of millions of dollars into raising his hometown’s profile in the chess world and it paid off—in 2013, Congress named St. Louis, Missouri, the nation’s “chess capital.”
But when it comes to his ultimate goal—abolish state and local income taxes—he’s spent millions of dollars on elections and ballot initiatives for years with no success.
Now Sinquefield thinks he’s got just the right chess move to make it happen: convince St. Louis to sell off its airport.
When the Federal Aviation Administration accepted the city’s application for federal support to privatize Lambert International Airport in April, few were surprised. The Trump administration is pushing for more private financing of infrastructure, and even has proposed a federal bonus for local and state governments that sell or lease assets like roads and airports (called “asset recycling”).
“The bigger the thing you privatize, the more money we’ll give you,” said Gary Cohn, director of Trump’s National Economic Council and former president of Goldman Sachs.
But many wondered what’s in it for St. Louis. The airport is in good shape both physically and fiscally—it draws in $6 million annually to help fund city services.
Turns out Sinquefield is singlehandedly bankrolling the application process. He sees it as an trade-off: selling off or leasing the airport to private investors would make up for the lost revenue of lowering taxes.
Privatizing Lambert International Airport would be foolish for a number of reasons. Without careful scrutiny and protections, such “public-private partnerships” lower job quality and threaten to limit transparency and democratic decision-making for decades. They’re also risky—Chicago lost nearly a billion dollars leasing its downtown meters to Wall Street in 2008.
But Sinquefield’s crusade illustrates a larger point: selling off infrastructure is often a grab for cash and power, not sound fiscal policy.
And it has a lot to do with cutting taxes for the rich. Corporate America and Wall Street recognize the value of public assets like roads, airports, and water systems to a healthy society and growing economy. But they don’t want to pay for them—no, they want to profit off of them.
Trump’s infrastructure agenda is light on details, but we know one thing—it would make a handful of people like Sinquefield even richer, many of them with connections to the president. D.J. Gribbin, Trump’s infrastructure advisor, used to work for Macquarie, an Australian financial firm that just so happens to be one of the investors in play to take over the airport in St. Louis.
Public goods are meant to benefit everyone, not the few—that’s what makes them public.