When it comes to the new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, the Republican-controlled Legislature should say a resounding: "No."
And they should say it fast.
I supported the Bucks arena plan once. Pretty strongly. And I supported Gov. Scott Walker’s creative jock tax proposal for it. My reasoning revolved around the belief that it was good for the state to keep the Bucks here. The Bucks create jobs. And revenue. And having major league teams elevates the region.
That was then, this is now.
I still think the Bucks are good for the state. But here’s what changed.
First, Walker rejected what was basically a free gift from the Menominee and Seminole tribes to pay for the state’s jock tax portion of the plan (you know, because they wanted that casino in Kenosha that would have been an $800 million investment to the state that the governor doesn’t want, either).
We must have a lot of money lying around to reject that much of it. Oh, wait, that’s right. We have a big projected deficit (I think the Menominee/Seminole could offer the state a billion dollars, and the governor would turn it down. There’s no number they can give. There’s some other agenda at work here).
Then, I saw Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett on TV this past weekend being asked pointblank by Mike Gousha whether the city will kick anything in for the arena. After all, Gousha pointed out, Barrett has found a lot of money for a streetcar project.
Barrett denied the two are connected, saying that legally the streetcar money can’t go toward the Bucks. Fine. But, pressed on whether the city will help out somehow for the Bucks, Barrett mumbled a bunch of vague things that sounded more like obfuscation than candor or commitment.
He said the city will have "skin in the game" and be a player in this plan, but he stopped short of really saying how and emphatically repeated that he won't raise taxes to do it. Instead, he said the city will contribute things like utilities and parking. And made it clear the city’s going to add up the dollar value of that.
So Barrett’s contribution will be the streets that already exist? The infrastructure? A parking lot? Because there wouldn’t be parking without the city’s help, right? What is he even talking about?
I would also note that Barrett was asked about this and responded with a rambling, vague statement. He didn’t hold a press conference. He doesn’t seem engaged. The streetcar and crime seem to have his attention. Not this.
(As an aside, where is he on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee cuts, too? He's been completely MIA, utterly AWOL, on the unprecedented cuts proposed for Milwaukee's public university. I'd suggest we put Barrett's mug on a milk carton, except he finds a way to advocate for a trolley that doesn't do anything to correct the region's real transportation needs -- getting urban workers to suburban jobs, for one).
With leadership like this, I think the taxpayers and legislators who represent them should respond to the Bucks arena jock tax plan: Just no.
If the city is not willing to kick in anything significant, then it can’t be much of a priority to the city leadership. But it’s supposed to be a priority to someone from, say, in northern Wisconsin?
And Walker’s rejection of what was essentially free money from the Seminole/Menominee wasn’t cost neutral. It cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Furthermore, the Bucks billionaires have also shown a lack of leadership. They put exactly zero pressure on the governor to take the Menominee/Seminole money. And Barrett put zero pressure on the governor to do so, too (yeah, I get it. He doesn't want to tick off the Pots. Is anyone willing to tick off the Pots? Or do they run our state and city now?)
But they’re fine with the public kicking in.
Here’s how Walker’s decision cost taxpayers throughout the state: If the Menominee/Seminole had borne the cost of that portion of the arena instead, as they offered to do, the Bucks would stay in Wisconsin. And the so-called jock taxes – the future revenue from players’ income – would go to the state coffers. It wouldn’t be diverted to the arena. So taxpayers would get the benefit.
Previously, Walker touted the plan as diverting revenue that wouldn't exist without the plan because the Bucks would leave. But that rationale is out the window now. There was other money available that he turned down.
But, now, yes, there’s a good chance the Legislature will nix the thing all together. Which would mean we don’t get the future revenue. But if they approve the jock tax, we don’t get the future revenue, either, because it gets plowed back into the arena.
So Walker rejected a lot of money without clear reason.
It was always a tough call to get a Republican-controlled Legislature to accept a form of public financing for a sports team run by billionaires. But I think it was very possible before the Menominee/Seminole offer.
But diverting tax revenue to help billionaires when someone else was willing to pay it? Forget it.
Walker basically rejected free money that was offered to convince him to approve a project that would bring the state lots more money (his argumentation that the casino would have cost the state millions is ridiculous and has been thoroughly debunked). You can’t even argue that he didn’t want to sell his anti-gaming moral principles, since we still have a state lottery and he didn’t couch the rejection on that.
Meanwhile, Menominee tribal members are walking from Keshena to Madison in vain hope to get a meeting with the governor … do you know how far it is from Keshena to Madison and in this cold?
I still personally believe it would be good to keep the Bucks here. It just seems like the taxpayers should have been the last resort. I’m not feeling the passion from Barrett on the issue. It doesn’t seem to be much of a priority to him or he would have argued for the Menominee money and kicked in some of his own. It feels like an after-thought.
And Walker had a better alternative. And rejected it for reasons that no one can divine. And that’s all apparently perfectly fine with the billionaire Bucks owners, who are exerting zero pressure on any of them.
The taxpayers should be the arena of last resort not the first and only option. With other avenues of revenue available here, any form of public financing – no matter how creatively constructed – for the Bucks arena simply cannot be justified.
The Legislature needs to vote "no." And maybe they should do it fast, to give the politicians time to come back to the table with better proposals to make sure we don’t lose the team. This is a priority to them? Prove it. They’re supposed to be the leaders here. It would be nice if they started acting like it.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.