Readers will recall my prediction last week that there was no way the Legislature would approve a financing plan for a new Bucks arena.
My source for that prediction, Right Wisconsin, may have changed its mind, or something:
A new poll … suggests that majorities of Wisconsinites could be persuaded to support public financing for a new Bucks arena if – and it is a big if – they are given the issue “in context” and hear the strongest arguments of proponents.
The poll, conducted by the Tarrance Group and commissioned by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, is clearly intended as a counter-weight to a recent Marquette University Law Poll that found overwhelming opposition to the arena deal. …
In a memo accompanying the numbers, Tarrance noted that “These numbers stand in contrast to the recent Marquette Poll,” and explained the two major differences between the polls: “First, the ‘context effect’ of having asked about other budget proposals immediately prior to this question, setting up a contest with other budget items in respondents minds. These other budget proposals included cutting money from public schools, the UW system, and borrowing money for roads.
“Second, the question in the Marquette Poll about the proposal only focused on one specific aspect, borrowing money, and not providing voters that complete picture of the proposal.”
Critics are likely to note that the wording of the poll is clearly designed to elicit positive responses, but its significance may lie in the fact that it demonstrates that there are, in fact, arguments that can be made that can win majority public support. Politically, this might make GOP legislators more comfortable with a “yes” vote than they would have been after the MU poll.
In other words: the arena deal remains a very heavy lift politically, but it may not be as toxic as the earlier poll had made. The poll also suggest how supporters will go about selling the public on the deal – emphasizing the public/private partnership, the economic benefits of the ancillary development, and the payoff from the state’s “investment.”
In that sense, the poll is a road map for selling the Bucks’ deal in the coming weeks.
One interesting tidbit: the poll tests the question of borrowing $150 million – rather than a larger number sometimes floated in Madison. It does not test options for closing any remaining fund gap.
So how did we get to this point? Like this:
“The National Basketball Association, or NBA, says that if a new arena is not built in Milwaukee, they will force the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team to leave by 2017. If the team leaves, the state of Wisconsin will lose more than $730 million dollars in revenue over 30 years, and will be forced to pay over $100 million to keep the Bradley Center open, hurting Wisconsin’s ability to fund other priorities like education and economic development.”
Knowing this, fully 64% of Wisconsin voters think it would be better for Wisconsin if the Milwaukee Bucks stay in Milwaukee, while only 18% say it would be better if the team leaves to go to another state.
Support for keeping the Bucks crosses party lines, with 69% of Republicans, and 65% of Democrats alike agreeing that is better if the Bucks stay.
Regionally, agreement that it is best to keep the Bucks holds at 67% in the Milwaukee and the Green Bay media markets. Majorities elsewhere prefer to keep the Bucks as well.
Next, respondents were provided with a full description of the proposal:
“There is a proposal to build a new arena in downtown Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Bucks and Herb Kohl have committed to spend $250 million of their own money, half of the cost. The city, county and state would raise the other half. As part of this 50/50 public/private partnership, there would be no new statewide taxes, and revenue generated by the NBA team will more than repay the public investment.”
Knowing this, 67% of voters support building a new arena in downtown Milwaukee, while only 21% oppose. …
Next, respondents are provided some more information about the benefits of the development:
“Total public investment of $250 million dollars for a new arena would attract up to $500 million dollars in additional development beyond the arena itself, creating a sports and entertainment district in the heart of Milwaukee. The total development would create over 10,000 jobs over the next decade, many of them permanent. All of the development and jobs will generate tax revenue for the state that benefits everyone statewide.”
With this additional information, support for building a new arena climbs to 71%, while 20% remain opposed. …
“All told, under the proposal, the state would borrow $150 million dollars, which is only $50 million more than the state will owe on the Bradley Center if they do nothing. Borrowing the $150 million dollars will generate $750 million dollars in additional investment from the private sector and create thousands of jobs, while doing nothing will cause the Milwaukee Bucks to leave Wisconsin and cost the state more than $730 million in lost tax revenue.”
Given that $150 million figure, 64% of voters say that “Wisconsin borrowing money to help fund this arena project is a good investment for the state.” Only 28% say it is not. …
Finally, respondents are given a little more information about the nature of the proposal for the state to borrow money:
“As you know, under the arena development proposal, the state would borrow $150 million dollars, which will be repaid by tax revenue generated by the Milwaukee Bucks. The loan would come from a state run trust fund, so the state would be borrowing from itself, and NOT from Wall Street. By law, all interest paid back on the loan would go directly towards state education funding.”
Knowing this, 67% say they support “Wisconsin borrowing money from itself to fund the arena development proposal, with the interest paid back going directly towards state education funding?” Only 26% oppose.
There are at least a few dubious assumptions in the poll questions, including all the estimates of economic impact if the arena is built and the negative economic impact if the Bucks leave.
There is a more dubious assumption that these poll results will move Democratic legislators, none of whom have spoken in favor of a state-financed Bucks arena. As with Miller Park in the mid-1990s, it is apparently up to Republicans to get a financing package through the Legislature to benefit primarily Democratic Milwaukee County.
(You would think Republicans would point out to Milwaukee Democrats that it is Democrats’ constituents, the workers at Bradley Center events, who would lose their jobs if the Bucks left Milwaukee. Those people don’t get rich working at the Bradley Center, but what they get paid is far more than unemployment. Or maybe that task of persuasion should be left to Bucks owner Marc Lasry, a well known big-dollar Democratic owner, or former Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, former owner of the Bucks.)
Whether the Legislature approves a new Bucks arena may depend, perhaps ironically, on the Bucks themselves. The Bucks presently trail their NBA first-round playoff series to Chicago three games to two, having unexpectedly won game five of their series in Chicago Monday night. Game six is at the Bradley Center Thursday night, and tickets were sold out not long after the Bucks’ Monday night win.
This could be analogous to the 1995 Seattle Mariners, who won their first division title and playoff series while the Washington Legislature was considering a replacement for the Kingdome under threats of departure without a new stadium. The Mariners won their series, galvanizing the Northwest in the process, and got Safeco Field.
On the other hand, the Brewers managed to get Miller Park despite their inept play (and, worse, management) through nearly all of the 1990s. The Brewers stayed in Milwaukee because Gov. Tommy Thompson simply refused to have the Brewers leave on his watch. (The Braves’ departure from Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1965 cost the state Supreme Court chief justice his job in the next election. The Braves announced they were leaving in 1964, and in Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election year, Democratic Gov. John Reynolds lost his bid for reelection.
It is also possible that both polls are correct — that a majority of Wisconsinites want the Bucks to stay in Wisconsin, but a majority of Wisconsinites don’t want their tax dollars, directly or indirectly, going to a Bucks arena for a less-than-statewide team. I’m not sure how you get around that, but attitudes might change if the Bucks are able to make an unexpectedly deep playoff run, as they did for the 1995 Mariners.