If there were an award for the most slavishly stenographic sports stadium journalism, we might just have to retire it in the name of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Don Walker, who has never seen a press statement by a Bucks exec or elected official that he didn’t want to rush into print. Yesterday it was Milwaukee chamber of commerce president Timothy Sheehy, who noted that the 2015 Wisconsin legislative session starts in January, so he wants to have an arena plan ready to go in January, even though there’s a gubernatorial election in November and all state-level arena talks are on hold until then. This could have led to a headline along the lines of “Tight timetable for arena talks before 2015 session,” but instead they went with “Local leaders say arena plans must be in place by new year,” because the Journal-Sentinel.
Let’s move along, then, to the one piece of almost-news in Walker’s article, which is that Sheehy is considering proposing diverting income taxes paid by NBA players to pay off arena bonds. Sheehy says about $90 million in total costs could be funded with $6-8 million a year in tax proceeds; the math on that is correct, anyway. Whether NBA players really generate that much in income taxes is more doubtful: The Bucks’ salary cap is currently $56 million, the top state income tax is 7.65%, which gets us to about $4.3 million a year. (Yes, visiting players would pay the tax as well, but Bucks players could also deduct their out-of-state income taxes.) But NBA salaries will go up, so … maybe.
The bigger leap is Sheehy’s conclusion that “if there is no NBA play here in 2018, there’s an assortment of revenue that flows to the state that will no longer be there.” Even if one assumes that the Bucks will leave in 2018 without a new arena (possible, but hardly a sure bet), Bucks fans won’t go with them, and will still need to do something with their winter evenings other than watching terrible basketball. Those other things could include just about anything, but with a couple of obvious exceptions, they’ll all put income in somebody’s pockets that will be subject to income tax. So all that “new” money thanks to the Bucks isn’t actually new — some of it is just Milwaukee entertainment spending that happens to be going to basketball.
In any case, it looks like we can see where the Bucks’ (or at least Sheehy’s) strategy is going here: Piece together $200 million or maybe it’s $300 million who can say in private money, $90 million in player income taxes, maybe another $100 million in sales taxes on spending at the arena (likewise much of which would be cannibalized from other in-state spending), and voilà, you have half a billion-ish dollars and nobody’s really spending any public money, because public money that is rebates on your sales and income taxes doesn’t really count as public money, because it just doesn’t, okay? Now if the Bucks (and Sheehy, and Walker) can only convince the governor, whoever that may be, of this in the few weeks between the election and the start of the legislative session, they should be sitting pretty. At least for the 25 years it takes until they want another new arena.