Well, they done did it: The Wisconsin state senate voted yesterday by a surprisingly hefty 21-10 margin to approve state, county, and city funding for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, to replace the 27-year-old Bradley Center. A flurry of last-minute negotiations resulted in Democratic lawmakers getting a handful of changes to the deal in exchange for their votes:
- Instead of requiring Milwaukee County to let the state collect some of its citizens’ unpaid tax debts and use $4 million a year of that for the arena, the state will now just cut its funding to the county by $4 million, and let the county figure out how to pay for it. This would improve the “optics” of the county portion of the funding, as Democratic state senator Chris Larson said the day before — in other words, the state won’t have to be responsible for shaking down poor people to help pay for a pair of billionaires’ new NBA arena — but it doesn’t change the actual county subsidy amount at all. In fact, the county could still end up paying for its share by having the state collect on its debts — it’d just be the county’s decision, not the state’s.
- Took the ticket tax on events at the Bradley Center — currently $2 on tickets over $12, $1.50 on cheaper tickets — and raised it to a flat $2 per ticket, 50 cents of which would go to the state to repay its costs. That’s actually less money going to the Wisconsin Center District than previously, though more to the state.
The previous estimate for total public cost of this deal was $457 million: $55 million in state bonds, $55 million from the county, $93 million diverted from the WCD, $20 million to pay off state debt on the Bradley Center, $54 million in city costs for garages and other infrastructure, and $180 million in city property tax breaks. The only change to that in the revised deal — aside from exactly how the money would be provided — is an additional 50 cent charge on tickets under $12, which, given that the entire ticket tax only brings in $1.5 million a year, is going to over time knock at most a million dollars off that $457 million bill. Tough negotiating, Wisconsin Democrats!
In exchange, of course, Milwaukee will get to keep the Bucks — and as Democratic senator Lena Taylor argued yesterday, “the Bucks are big bucks for the state of Wisconsin.” I’ve spelled out before why the “cheaper to keep them” line is bogus — and I have a piece going up at Vice Sports later this morning that explores this in greater detail — so there’s no possible way Wisconsin taxpayers are going to earn back $457 million in value from the presence of the Bucks, especially not when the team will get 100% of all revenues from the new arena. The economically sensible move would have been to call the Bucks owners’ bluff and see if they truly walked — or, at least, to offer them a significantly less lucrative handout and see if they’d accept it.
Instead, as is so often the case, the only true negotiations were between different levels of government about who will get stuck with the tab. It’s a disappointing ending (well, not really an ending since the state assembly and city council still have to vote, but those are considered done deals), especially coming on the heels of several mayors pushing back on sports subsidies, not to mention John Oliver’s “Make them pay!” movement (it must be a movement, it has its own hashtag!). But at least Bucks fans will be happy, if poorer. And hey, the world needs cautionary tales too, right?