Shed a tear for Milwaukee journalists, for this is their job

Milwaukee and Wisconsin leaders met for a second straight day yesterday to discuss funding plans for a Bucks arena, and how’d that go?

“We are continuing to talk about a solution,” Bucks President Peter Feigin said.

Yup, yup, I expect you are. And are you getting anywhere?

“Another productive working session. Everyone is continuing to operate in good faith and there’s a lot of issues that need to be worked out, but I think I think that people want to work these issues out. So, there’s no announcement whatsoever. We’re going to continue to meet. Staff are going to be exchanging numbers and we’re just going to continue to work,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.

If printing that sort of PR pablum — along with a summary of all the different arena funding proposals floated so far, to fill out space — seems like a thin excuse for an article, such is the lot of the daily journalists now covering the Bucks arena closed-door meeting beat. In fact, it gets worse than that: Check out the reporting that’s gone on before each of the meetings, when elected officials didn’t even have anything new to refuse to comment on. From yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website:

Shortly before attending another meeting to discuss cost-sharing for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, Mayor Tom Barrett was circumspect about where the talks stand…

“We had a good working session yesterday in Madison and we’re going to continue the discussions today (in Milwaukee). I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot of moving pieces right now. I think that everyone who is involved in this is operating with goodwill. And it’s a challenging issue,” Barrett said.

Now there’s a nothingburger of a quote, but the mayor said it, so it’s news, right? And it’s still better than the report that poor Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal filed on Wednesday, as all the politicians filed into a room at the governor’s office and shut the door behind them:

The key players arrived Wednesday afternoon for a closed-door summit on possible public funding of a new arena in downtown Milwaukee but nearly all of them declined to comment as they entered the Governor’s Conference Room at the state Capitol in Madison….

“I’d be thrilled if something was (agreed to),” [Milwaukee County Executive Chris] Abele said. “We’ll do whatever we can to get there. We have a number of parties so I don’t speak for anybody else.”

It’s hard to say who’s to blame for this kind of on-the-scenes information-free reporting — the journalists involved no doubt figure it’s what their editors want, editors figure it’s what readers want, and readers probably click on it eagerly, even if there’s no metric in Google Analytics for “disappointment at finding nothing of interest after clicking on a promising headline.” (Man, can you imagine if there was? BuzzFeed would go out of business overnight.) But it has to stop, because, well, it’s hurting America.

What else could Milwaukee’s assembled journalistic corps be doing instead of chasing elected officials around for non-quotes, you ask? Well, they could be analyzing the likely funding options left on the table, like Milwaukee Magazine did the other day. Or read Gov. Scott Walker’s actual arena proposal to find that if the Bucks owners were to break their lease, they’d have to repay the state’s costs, but not the city’s or county’s, as reported by Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy yesterday. Or, really, pretty much anything that requires actually researching facts and reporting them to readers, rather than just being a quote-harvesting service for people with fancy titles.

Not that the daily journalists never do this — they do, every once in a while. But it’s way too infrequent an occurrence, especially when they have yards of column inches (or column pixels) to fill each month. There’s an incredible story unfolding in Milwaukee right now, about how two rich guys bought the local NBA team and are, with the help of a move threat deadline set by the league, trying to extract $250 million in public money to replace a 27-year-old arena from a state that may soon have trouble paying for its schools and highways. Instead, we get this:

“We understand the importance of it. We understand the impact on the state of Wisconsin, on the community here, on the region here, and I understand that all of us have an obligation to our taxpayers. So, it’s very much a work in progress, but I’m glad that we’re working.”

Is it any wonder that people think this stuff can be done equally well by robots?

Wisconsin officials meet to talk Bucks arena, fun time is had by all

Representatives of the Milwaukee Bucks, aides to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, top state legislative leaders, and Milwaukee city and county leaders all got together yesterday to talk about how the heck to pay for a new $500 million arena that none of them actually want to pay for, and … well, it was a closed-door meeting, so nobody knows what was discussed. But according to all who were there, they had a great old time filling out the forms and playing with the pencils:

“It was a good give and take,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. “We’re pleased.”…

Barrett, [Milwaukee County Executive Chris] Abele, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Bucks President Peter Feigin all described Wednesday’s talks as positive. …

“I look for as many ways to get to yes and rule out as few options as possible,” Abele told reporters after the meeting. “I want all the parties to be as happy as they can be. I want to get the Bucks here. And as everybody said, we want to be responsible to the tax dollars.”

“I think everyone in that room is operating in good faith,” Barrett said. “They all recognize that we have a responsibility to the taxpayers…and we all share the same goal, which is to make sure that we have the Bucks stay.”

Reading between the lines, then, everyone agreed that funding a Bucks arena was why they were in the room together, and managed not to accuse each other of promoting gun violence or anything. And will meet again today to see if anyone actually has any bright ideas for how to pay for the Bucks owners’ new toy. Whether you take that as a sign of progress or of back-room collusion probably depends on how happy you would be to see them adopt some Rube Goldberg financing device that would spend now, figure out how to pay for it later, because that sure seems like where this thing is headed.

Bucks exec debates self on arena deadline in poet-journalist’s latest tour de force

Aw, man. Here Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sportswriter/poet Don Walker had gone and written the long-awaited sequel to his epic work consisting solely of quotes from Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin; the new one was all about how Feigin had declared that a new arena plan would have to be finalized in the next ten days, or else. And while it may not have had the stylistic purity of the original’s incessant repetition of the phrase “Feigin said,” it was still a worthy successor, outlining the team exec’s ultimatum without once asking anyone else if it was for real.

But now it’s gone, flushed down the internet’s memory hole, not even a ghost surviving on the Wayback Machine. And the culprit is none other than Feigin himself, who ruined everything by turning around and insisting that there is no deadline, and there never was a deadline:

Late in the afternoon — and three hours after his comments were posted online — Feigin released a statement from the Bucks that attempted to backtrack.

“There is no immediate deadline for a financing plan and we’re not creating one,” it said. “We’re simply hopeful that progress continues with our partners and throughout the legislative and political process.”

Bucks’ spokesman Jake Suski said Feigin misspoke. He said Feigin didn’t want to leave the impression that the Bucks were imposing their own deadline. “That wasn’t his intent,” Suski said.

Earlier, however, the Bucks president had been quite clear, saying if an arena financing deal doesn’t get completed, “the Bucks will be gone from the state of Wisconsin.”

The resulting revised article still only quotes Feigin (and Suski), but the magic is gone. Though come to think of it, maybe what Walker and Feigin are doing here is trying to elevate stenography journalism by subverting it: In the future, newspapers will just reprint what powerful people say without question, but the powerful people will make up for it by debating themselves on the topic. It’s a whole new paradigm of checks and balances, and you’re reading it first in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Might as well try something, because journalism sure isn’t going to save itself.

How Milwaukee leaders could use stealth tax to fund Bucks arena without anyone taking the blame

As part of his campaign to get funding for a Milwaukee Bucks arena approved by Memorial Day, Wisconsin state senator Scott Fitzzgerald has called a meeting of the minds for tomorrow, bringing together state, city, and team officials to discuss, presumably, how none of them have any ideas for how to actually pay for the thing. And maybe actually play a physical game of hot potato with the $500 million bill, wouldn’t that be cool?

For a refresher on why exactly there’s no money for this thing, we can turn to Milwaukee Magazine’s Matt Hrodey, who points out that Fitzgerald’s plan to have a state board lend the money lacks a viable way to pay off the loan, something everyone is still waiting for Gov. Scott Walker’s secret idea to fund beyond his old idea of using player income taxes and crossing his fingers that NBA salaries soar; meanwhile, it would require the city to come up with its own pile of money, something it would have trouble doing given that the arena wouldn’t pay any property taxes of its own, and the state has dramatically restricted the city’s borrowing power.

Hrodey does come up with one possible way for the city to contribute, but it would amount to a stealth property tax surcharge. It goes like this: The Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which Fitzgerald is proposing as lender for the public arena funding, loans the city a pile of cash. In that case,

If the BCPL also lends a chunk – $25 or $50 million – to the city, county, or both, state law would require each entity to raise its tax levy by an amount sufficient to pay off the resulting debt service on the loan. This tax would have to be “separately designated” and calculated apart from the usual municipal levy. And to boot, it would be “irrepealable until the loan and all interest on the loan are fully paid.” If for some reason the local government was to miss a payment, it would be automatically deducted from state aid.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, meanwhile, has said he won’t raise property taxes for a Bucks arena, which would seem to kill this plan, but you have to figure there’s going to be pressure for him to cave in to make a deal happen. One possible out, which Hrodey kind of hints at but doesn’t say outright: Barrett could agree to take out BCPL loans and then pay them back by some fanciful revenue stream — say, tax-increment financing based on increased property taxes paid by development around the arena, or hell, maybe e-pulltabs. Then once the revenues fail to arrive, he (or whoever was mayor by the time anyone noticed the revenue shortfall) would be forced by the big bad state government to raise property taxes to fill in the gap. Voila, taxes raised for the Bucks, and nobody is to blame!

All of this could be moot, meanwhile, if the state budget projections come in as poorly as they could in mid-May, leaving everyone involved scrambling to avoid looking like they’re throwing money at the Bucks while slashing spending for everything else under the sun. But even then, that’s only a temporary obstacle: If Fitzgerald can put together even the vague outline of a plan in the next few weeks — say, with the state paying off a BCPL loan with pretend player income taxes, and the city paying off a BCPL loan with pretend TIF money — there’s plenty of time to implement it next year after everyone has forgotten where the money is coming from, and the lobbyists have had another year to make all the politicians involved just want this issue to go away, already.

Hey, I think I just solved the Bucks arena funding problem! If by “solved” you mean “found a way to stick taxpayers with the bill without any politicians having to lose their jobs over it,” that is, and I’m pretty sure that’s what Fitzgerald and company have in mind. Now they can knock off early at tomorrow’s meeting and go for custard.

Wisconsin pols turn on each other as Bucks arena deadline nears, but would team really move without one?

It already seemed like it was headed this way, but the Milwaukee Bucks arena squabble is fast deteriorating into a slap fight between the state, county, and city on who’ll pay for the share of the cost that the team’s owners don’t want to. I mean, check this out:

[State Sen. Alberta] Darling accused [Milwaukee Mayor Tom] Barrett of “appalling leadership,” saying he was shifting the blame for crime without taking responsibility for what’s happening in the city. Last week, Barrett called on Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated Legislature to devote more resources to public safety in Milwaukee, saying the state’s gun laws have resulted in more guns on the street.

“He never is at fault for anything,” Darling said. “He’s never the key player.”

Asked if she wanted Barrett to bring cash to the table for a new arena, Darling nodded yes.

Ooooooooh!

If you’re wondering what arenas have to do with gun laws, this all goes back to last week when a toddler was run over by a car and killed, leading to a gunfight that left two other people dead as well, and Barrett blamed state legislators for loosening gun laws. In other words, the two have nothing to do with each other, but now the legislators who are pushing for a new Bucks arena aren’t going to pay for one to spite Barrett, or something, I mean anyway:

“Politics is about relationships,” [state Rep. John] Nygren said Friday. “You poke a finger in our eyes, it makes it a little harder.”

Ooooooooh!

The legislators’ idea here, presumably, is that they will be able to shame Barrett into finding more money to chip in for a Bucks arena, even though he doesn’t really have any to spare. But Wisconsin officials are up against a deadline, kinda sorta, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reminds us:

If an arena is not in place in Milwaukee by the start of the 2017-18 season — an ambitious schedule — the NBA has the right to buy the team. League insiders suggest a sale and relocation is the next logical step. The team would be worth more, by most analyses, in another city. … The NBA has communicated it could give on the schedule a bit, but only in the case of true progress. The league isn’t threatening consequences; it’s guaranteeing them.

Let’s check the record on that. This all goes back to Wes Edens and Mark Lasry’s deal to buy the Bucks last spring, when they agreed to a clause that would allow the NBA to buy the team (and presumably move it) if arena construction isn’t underway, or at least in the works, by November 2017. You have to assume that Edens and Lasry didn’t need much arm-twisting to include this clause — it neatly lets them make the NBA the bad guys who are forcing them to demand hundreds of millions of dollars in arena subsidies, or else. And while we don’t know much about the details of the clause, thanks to the fact that the only people talking about it are unnamed sources, it sounds vague enough that the NBA could easily give Milwaukee some more rope if it feels like subsidies might be just around the corner. So the deadline is fake, just like stadium deadlines usually are.

Ultimately, though, would the Bucks likely move if more more arena funding is forthcoming in Milwaukee? The assumption here is that Seattle would be the likely relocation site, given that it’s a bigger market than Milwaukee and Chris Hansen has an arena plan ready to go, or could next year anyway, assuming he finds somebody new with deep pockets to take over for Steve Ballmer as part of his ownership group. And on top of all that, recall that the last time we went through all this with the Sacramento Kings, the NBA seemed way more interested in using Seattle as leverage to extract arena subsidies from the team’s existing city, rather than actually jumping at the chance to move into an arena that, on the plus side, would be built without a ton of taxpayer subsidies, and on the minus side, would saddle any team with arena debt since it would be built without a ton of taxpayer subsidies.

I’d say right now the move threat level posed by Seattle is low-to-moderate — worth keeping an eye on, but also not something that necessarily means Milwaukee taxpayers need to shovel as much money as possible at the Bucks owners or their team is 100% gone. (Shoveling moderate amounts of money might well do it.) Instead, we have city and state officials shouting at each other increasingly frantically to find some money already, either out of genuine fear that time is running out, or just in hopes that with enough finger-pointing they can make sure people get mad at the other guy if the Bucks do end up leaving. The American political system continues to be corporate subsidy seekers’ best friend.

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.

Wisconsin senator whose brother is Bucks lobbyist says time is now to pass arena bill

Momentum! It’s a mysterious political process that mostly involves elected officials declaring loudly that a proposal has it, then repeating it often enough that the local media believes it. In the case of the Milwaukee Bucks arena talks, we’re now in full perpetual motion machine mode, with Wisconsin senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald declaring that public funding for a Bucks arena can get done by Memorial Day, notwithstanding that it would require the city of Milwaukee to provide cash that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says he don’t wanna, plus that Fitzgerald’s own plan for state funding doesn’t actually include a revenue source.

(Yes, I know that I previously said this was the racino phase, but there can be a phase and a mode at the same time, okay?)

Fitzgerald also indicated that he’d be looking to Milwaukee County to chip in some funding, to go along with $150 million in kicked-back future NBA player income taxes that may or may not materialize, kicked-back property taxes from a possible tax increment financing district for the Bucks’ planned development alongside the arena, and anything else he finds while digging through supply closets. The goal here appears to be to set a deadline, thus shifting the question from “Should we help pay for a Bucks arena?” to “Which of us is going to pay for a Bucks arena?” And the fact that Fitzgerald’s brother is a paid lobbyist for the Bucks undoubtedly has nothing to do with this sudden urgency at all.

Bucks have pretty pictures of planned arena, still no idea how to pay for it beyond “not us”

The owners of the Milwaukee Bucks released their arena-plus-entertainment-plus-can-opener plan on Wednesday, and as it looked exactly as had been hinted at the day before ($1 billion in costs, no idea how to pay for it), I didn’t think it was worth an item here. But then I realized: I was neglecting your vaportecture porn! So, here you are, your Bucks arena district that may or may not be built and/or look like this if it is:

Do you think they teach special “ray of light” courses in architectural school? I can only imagine the instructors: “No, no, more beamy! Don’t you know spotlights are the physical manifestation of economic activity?”

Anyway, Gov. Scott Walker and state assembly speaker Robin Vos immediately took advantage of the new pretty pictures to berate the city and county for not putting more money into the Bucks plan, because that’s the only idea they have for paying for it:

“When you look at the impressive development plans unveiled today, it’s clear that the city and county need to step up their game and make more of an investment in the project than what they have initially put forward,” Vos said.

Asked whether the Milwaukee Bucks owners or Mayor Tom Barrett needed to do more, the governor focused on the city.

“I think it would be helpful with the Legislature, particularly the city stepping up,” Walker said. “I think there’s a clear sentiment from the speaker and the (Senate) majority leader who have pointed out they want to see a strong commitment from the city and the county. We’ve talked with them and we’re hopeful that we’ll get there.”

Barrett responded that he still likes Gov. Walker’s plan where the state would pay for pretty much all the subsidies, even though Walker himself has pretty much admitted that plan is dead. If everybody involved is just going to play Alphonse and Gaston with the bill, we could be here a while.

Meanwhile, somebody (Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) asked Bucks co-owner Wes Edens if he’d consider putting more of his own money into the arena, since he’s going to be the one having his team play in it, and got this as an answer:

“I don’t know really what the answer to that is,” he said. “There is an economic side to it, and it has to be a viable transaction.”

Edens said the owners’ existing financial commitment “kind of pushes the limit” on that viability, but he acknowledged that the wealth of the owners “complicates the narrative.”

Translated: A new arena wouldn’t make money for us if we had to pay for building it, only if somebody else shoulders half the cost. That’s certainly honest, but it raises the question of why a new arena is a good idea in the first place, if it’s a money loser. For some reason “impressive development plans” aren’t expected to be a reason in themselves for private businessmen to cough up money, but the public purse is another story: So much of the stadium and arena game really does come down to “Lookit the pretty pictures, you can’t afford not to do this!” So we get lots of pretty pictures, and not much in the way of testing whether transactions are viable. Which is how you end up in racino land.

Bucks owners to announce $1B arena development project that they still don’t know how to pay for

Stop the presses! The Milwaukee Bucks owners are set to make a major announcement today about their new arena, and it’s going to be a game changer, which we know because the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls it “game-changing” right there in their headline! Don Walker, what’s the scoop?

Envisioning an entertainment hub that would transform downtown, the Milwaukee Bucks plan to build a $500 million arena just north of the BMO Harris Bradley Center and use that as a springboard for an additional $500 million in development, much of it in the largely vacant Park East corridor…

The development would include a 700,000-square-foot, 17,000-seat arena; a 60,000-square-foot public plaza, anticipated as a sort of live entertainment space on what is largely a city-owned parking ramp at the corner of N. 4th St. and W. Highland Ave.; and arena parking across the street in the Park East area. Total amount of space just for that portion of the development: 1 million square feet.

Okay, we actually kind of knew that part already, except that the $500 million price tag on the ancillary development is new. (Also potentially completely made up, since it’s private development that the Bucks owners could scale up or down at will, but let’s leave that aside for now.) What everybody wants to know is how they’d pay for it. What’s with that, Bucks owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry?

For now the Bucks are backing Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed $220 million state bonding plan, buttressed by a $150 million commitment from Bucks owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, and a $100 million commitment from former Sen. Herb Kohl.

Oh, the plan that everybody in Wisconsin, including the Journal Sentinel itself, declared dead two weeks ago? Excellent! Apparently not only politicians can play the game of announcing arena plans but not how to pay for them.

What’s going on here is pure PR: Edens and Lasry are clearly hoping that by throwing in a bunch of additional development, asking for $220 million from the state (and maybe $50 million from the city) will look better: It’s not more than half of a $500 million arena project, it’s only a quarter of a billion-dollar arena-and-development project! This doesn’t seem all that likely to win any friends in the state legislature, which is what matters right now, but it does have the potential to maybe stem the tide of “Bucks arena going nowhere” press that’s been the general theme the past couple of weeks. Hey, Don Walker is upbeat about it! Now that’s what I call momentum!

Every politician in Wisconsin now has Bucks arena plan, won’t say what it is

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to raise $250 million for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena fell apart two weeks ago, I fully expected every elected official in town to start throwing ideas at the wall. What I didn’t expect was every elected official in town to start announcing they had ideas, but not what they were. So far we’ve had:

And now the latest, from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who looks creepily like a young Bud Selig:

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele says his staff is working on what he called alternative models that will get the entire project funded.

Abele has declined to detail what that funding plan is and what role the county would play.

Can I play, too? I have a funding plan for a Bucks arena that won’t cost anyone a dime, that can make it through the state legislature, and that rewrites the laws of thermodynamics! I can’t divulge what it is, though, that’d be telling.