Assembly Speaker Robin Vos apparently thinks his fellow Republicans are not really interested in providing state funding for a new Bucks arena, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
The Milwaukee Bucks investors who are seeking public money for a new arena will have to negotiate a difficult political path in Madison, where Republicans have widened their control of the Legislature.
The latest sign of trouble for those wanting public money for the arena came from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who said he thinks Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry made a mistake by greeting President Barack Obama at the airport in the lead-up to last week’s election.
Obama was in town Oct. 28 for a rally at North Division High School on behalf of Democrat Mary Burke. A week later, Republican Gov. Scott Walker beat Burke to win a second term.
Vos said Lasry’s appearance “did not make my job easier” in terms of persuading Republican legislators to back a possible financial plan to build a new, multipurpose arena in Milwaukee.
“It’s a tough sell when you’re asking for millions of dollars,” Vos said.
The Bucks want to replace the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center with a new downtown arena at a cost of $400 million to $500 million. Lasry, co-owner Wes Edens and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce have said some public funding would be needed for the project.
Lasry and Edens have committed $100 million toward a new arena. Former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl has also said he would put $100 million toward an arena, and additional private investment could bring the total commitment to $300 million. Kohl sold the Bucks to the two hedge-fund investors this year for $550 million.
Finding state money for the project will be difficult. Some lawmakers are ideologically opposed to using public money for a private facility. Others are open to the idea, but the proposal must compete with other issues they hope to tackle. …
A detailed proposal has yet to be put forward on getting public money for a new arena, though one idea under consideration is capturing the income taxes paid by professional athletes and other employees at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. An estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau concluded that the athletes and other employees paid state income taxes of approximately $10.7 million in the 2012 tax year. If accurate, that could potentially support state bonding totaling $125 million or more.
[Gov. Scott] Walker has called that idea interesting and said he wants to keep the Bucks, but he has not publicly embraced a particular plan.
“Governor Walker has said that we first need to hear details of a plan from elected officials, Bucks officials and civic leaders in Milwaukee,” Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said by email. “Then we will review and evaluate any role that might involve the state government.”
Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) said he had not been briefed on ways to fund the arena, but expressed skepticism on using income tax receipts that are already earmarked to fund schools and an array of state programs.
“I’d be very cautious” on using funds the state generates from income and sales taxes, Cowles said.
One idea — extending the 0.1% Miller Park sale tax in five counties — appears to be dead.
“That will not happen on my watch,” Vos said.
Walker has also rejected that idea, saying there is no support for it.
Approving the sales tax was a difficult political battle that resulted in the 1996 recall of then-Sen. George Petak (R-Racine), who voted for the stadium tax after saying he wouldn’t.
The stadium fight has “salted the earth” on using a sales tax to fund a sports facility, said Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine).
“It is a tougher path than it was before. And if you don’t believe me, ask George Petak,” Mason said.
Another way to fund the project would be to create a modified tax incremental financing district.
Tax incremental financing districts borrow money to pay for public improvements and other expenses. Property taxes from the new developments are used to pay off the debt.
For the arena, the TIF district would also capture state income taxes and state sales taxes generated within the district to repay that debt.
For the moment, Vos’ comments about Lasry’s visit with Obama have grabbed the headlines on the issue. In addition to his statements to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he made similar ones to the Milwaukee Business Journal and WISN-TV’s “UpFront with Mike Gousha.”
“If you’re looking to people for support, you certainly don’t want to poke people in the eye,” Vos told the Business Journal.
The Bucks, meanwhile, are hoping to stay out of the political fray and are reaching out to both parties.
“We don’t view revitalizing downtown Milwaukee as a political issue. Our objective is to have a transparent, open discussion with all the stakeholders to come up with a plan that unifies the city and state to do something transformative,” said Bucks’ spokesman Jake Suski.
The Milwaukee Business Journal adds a partisan wrinkle:
Despite Vos’ displeasure with Lasry, he said he anticipates Walker will consider strategies to support the Bucks.
“I support what we can do to save a business,” Vos said. …
The biggest arena cheerleader besides the Bucks so far has been the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which is friendly with Republicans. MMAC president Tim Sheehy said Wednesday he believes both Walker and Vos are open to considering state funding.
After the election, both the state Assembly and the state Senate remained in Republican control.
“Knowing who the make-up of the leadership in Madison is — from the governor to both the Assembly and Senate — the leadership is very helpful in thinking through potential approaches to address our need for a new civic center, home for the Bucks,” Sheehy said.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which spent heavily in support of Walker and against Burke, believes “Milwaukee needs thriving arts and entertainment options to keep and attract a dynamic workforce and quality of life,” said WMC CEO Kurt Bauer. That position echoes statements Sheehy has made in support of a new arena for more than a year.
“We may become more involved when the details are revealed,” Bauer said.
Would legislative Republicans go against one of their biggest supports, the business community?
Well, yes, they would, or at least they did in the mid-1990s during the Miller Park vote. That was a truly bipartisan vote in that Republicans and Democrats both favored and opposed the stadium sales tax.
That, however, was for a stadium funded by a five-county sales tax. Lambeau Field’s early-2000s improvements were funded by a 0.5-percent Brown County sales tax. And the Brewers and Packers are much more statewide teams than the Bucks. In terms of statewide interests, the gap between the Bucks and the Brewers, Packers and Badgers is the approximate size of the drive from Superior to Platteville.
Not surprisingly, the hypocrisy is strong on this issue. Those who complain about Vos’ comments apparently ignore the fact that if the new Bucks owners were Republicans, then Democrats would be complaining about a new arena being a “playground for the rich” staffed by minimum-wage workers with zero benefit beyond the Milwaukee city limits, and would suggest that the new owners should fund it themselves.
According to the MacIver Institute, Vos is floating a proposal to devote proceeds from income taxes of players and Bradley Center employees, about $10.7 million per year, to bond up to $150 million for a state contribution to the new arena project. The arena is estimated to cost $400 million to $500 million, so Vos’ idea would work, if you don’t mind the state’s paying $214 million (including interest) over 20 years for an arena. (Cue Democrat complaints about state debt levels in 5 … 4 … 3 …)
It would be hypocritical to complain about walling off this $10.7 million — which in a $35 billion annual budget isn’t much — when state voters just approved (correctly) walling off transportation funds from the next fund raid attempt. But where is the City of Milwaukee’s contribution? Where is Milwaukee County’s contribution?
This blog has previously reported that the purchase of the Bucks has a National Basketball Association buy-back option if the Bucks don’t get a new arena. A Bucks move is certainly possible, though it would make more financial sense for the NBA to add two teams instead of moving the Bucks.
Of all the new stadium projects, this makes the least sense for anyone outside Milwaukee. The Bucks may be Wisconsin’s only NBA team, but the Bucks are far from a statewide team.
I think the Republicans will make a deal to get an arena built. Not that they necessarily should. The Packers are a statewide team, and yet Brown County paid for the stadium expansion. The Brewers needed Miller Park and its roof to become a statewide team. The Bucks are not now, and are not likely to become absent Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls success, a statewide team.