Milwaukee official says arena subsidies are stupid, proposes sales tax hike to pay for one

Sure, every politician in Wisconsin is coming up with a way to use public funds to help pay off a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, but what do those other people in Wisconsin think? You know, the ones who voted them into office?

Seventy-nine percent of registered voters oppose a plan being discussed by Republican legislative leaders for the state to cover part of the $250 million in public funding the Milwaukee Bucks owners say they need to complete funding of the estimated $500 million project, [a Marquette Law School] poll found.

The poll only asked about Gov. Scott Walker’s plan for the state to borrow $150 million for an arena, not other iterations of public funding; still, that’s a pretty whopping majority, and the margin wasn’t much smaller (67-29%) when the poll looked at only residents of Milwaukee itself. And you know who else thinks giving public money to sports teams for new buildings is a lousy idea? Milwaukee alderman Bob Bauman, that’s who:

No one has answered the question: why are we providing any public money in the first place? Explain to us again why there’s a need for any public financing for a private basketball franchise. Why are we offering any money? Why is that even on the table?

The answer may well be, well, we’re being extorted. Then we at least know that, and the answer is these guys are going to get public financing because they can. They can leverage one city against another and basically extort the money. But so far, it’s just assumed that a private professional sports franchise requires a public subsidy. Why is that so?…

It is a money-losing investment, from the public standpoint.

Bauman then followed this up by — just minutes later — proposing to hike sales taxes by 1% in Milwaukee County to fund a new Bucks arena. And new parks. And mass transit. And museums. And cut property taxes. Raising sales taxes by that much would funnel a ton of money from Wisconsin shoppers to the county government ($125 million a year, by Bauman’s calculations), so the county could use it to pay for all kinds of stuff, only some of which are extortion plots that voters overwhelmingly hate.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Bauman isn’t entirely serious about this, and that he’s just floating his sales tax plan either 1) to tweak state officials for refusing to consider a tax hike as a way to pay for public projects or 2) to try to build support for funding other things, like public transportation, that he actually likes. Still, it’s not every day that a U.S. elected official gets up to proclaim that sports stadiums are a ripoff and blackmail, and we should immediately raise sales taxes to keep team owners happy — in a state that once recalled a state senator for approving a sales tax hike that was only one-tenth the size for a Brewers stadium. Racino time is weird, indeed.

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3 comments on “Milwaukee official says arena subsidies are stupid, proposes sales tax hike to pay for one

  1. How is this blackmail? Not all extortion (which should be legal, and only exists in the law to protect the rich and powerful) is blackmail.

  2. His point is to say that politicians and journalists push these kinds of developments not because of any kind of rational economic or public policy purpose, but because they feel like they may lose their jobs as a result (maybe true for sports journalists, not much evidence for politicians).

    Admitting that this is a vanity project for a poor city then becomes the first step in finding a reasonable way to pay for it. Or at least something that is possible to analyze in a cost-benefit manner unknown to most journalists.

  3. It’s great to read Bauman’s candor about politicians being shaken down, but mystifying that his plan offers more public subsidies that any other on the table (to be paid by citizens of a struggling county).

    He noted that sports venues never maintain themselves, so he wants the tax to cover lifetime maintenance. Yikes! Most MKE county-owned facilities/services that truly serve public needs get minimal funding. Parks budgets have been slashed for decades. This tax has no chance (tho parks and regionally transit really need funds).

    The Bucks are calling their proposed humongous annex (with bars, dining and huge TV screens) a “public area.” No business plan for this enterprise, just florid prose to sell it. Taxpayers will pay half for this commercial venture, and a public entity would struggle to manage it, as the Bucks skim their obscene percentages of all sales.

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