Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Large batches of Wisconsin jobs, budget data comnig out

Tomorrow kicks off two days of huge amounts of Wisconsin economic data. First of all, we should see the release of the "gold standard" Quarterly Census on Employment Wages for the June 2013-June 2014 time period, and the Walker Administration has indicated that it'll show the state added just over 35,000 private sector jobs in this time period. If that number holds up, it would be an increase of 1.47%, which is above the 1.2% and 1.3% figures we've generally seen for the year prior, but it's still well below the 1.9% we had in March 2011 (when Act 10 was passed by the State Legislature) and 1.7% in June 2011 (when Scott Walker's first budget took effect.

We also get to see how Wisconsin matches up with the rest of the nation and its Midwestern brethren. We've consistently been between 30th and 40th since the policies of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan started taking effect, and given that US jobs numbers began to pick up with consistency in the Spring of 2014 (and will be included in this report), I see no reason to think that trend won't continue. The other question is to see if Wisconsin is out of the cellar for the first 3 1/2 years of the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, or not.

Later in the afternoon, we should see the release of the state's jobs numbers for November. With the US having that blowout increase of 321,000 jobs for November, this means that anything less than 6,800 jobs in Wisconsin means that the state falls further behind, jacking up the Walker jobs gap past the 72,500 that it was already at in October.

Then on Friday, two more reports are scheduled to drop. The first is the state-by-state jobs and unemployment figures, where we get to compare Wisconsin's situation with the rest of the country, and it might inspire me to take another look at how the Midwest's "(right to) work for less" states do against the ones that don't have those provisions. In addition, the third Friday of the month is usually when the monthly revenue figures for the State of Wisconsin come out. With the state staring at budget deficits due to revenue shortfalls for both this fiscal year, and the next budget, this report takes on some extra interest. And WKOW's Greg Neumann dropped this little bit of news today from Gov Walker's Capitol photo op with Senate Republicans, which gives a bit of a clue as to what to expect from the report from the Department of Revenue.

So keep your eyes and ears open for the next 48 hours, as there will likely be plenty of lame attempts to distract from the reality on the ground, especially if the jobs and revenue numbers disappoint. Bad reports would sure explain all of Walker's tweets today about lower property tax bills, which are the result of giving $406 million in extra funding to technical colleges solely to cut the levies associated with those institutions. What Walker isn't telling people is that this move (listed as item 13 on this list from the LFB) was made without offsetting the extra funding in taxes (driving up the deficit as a result). Bad budget info would expose this as the cynical gimmick that it likely is.

School vouchers- driving up city taxes, driving down results

It’s time for Wisconsinites to receive and pay their property tax bills, and with that comes a lot of spinning and about the trends in the bills and how it affects the “hard-pressed, middle-class Wisconsin taxpayer.” For example, our Guv is plastering the Twittersphere with examples of the one-time drop in property taxes that go toward tech schools as a result of legislation from last winter (I note that Gov Walker doesn’t mention the $400 million-a-year budget hole that this move has caused).

Another person that’s taking note of his property tax bill is Milwaukeean Dom Noth, who’s back with another excellent, in-depth article describing how a different Scott Walker/WisGOP educational funding policy - greatly expanding funding for voucher schools at the expense of public schools – is a big reason behind higher property taxes for 2014 in the state’s largest city. Noth describes how politicians at the Capitol hide the true tax-jacking that goes on due to voucher schools, as those costs are folded into the costs listed under Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).
Looking at the language and largest graphs within the bill, the home owner thinks the levy cost for MPS has grown 1%. It actually dropped 0.6% in one year. What actually has grown by 8.5% is the levy for a hidden school district, the second largest school district in the state, the voucher program. And since Madison makes sure those costs can be fobbed off on MPS, which never sees a dime, it is MPS that looks poorly run and overly expensive, not the voucher school program, known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

MPCP is actually the sixth unit of local government on a tax bill that only reports five units. About 20% of what is blamed on the MPS it never sees, thanks to bureaucratic accounting finesse in Madison.

If this was about truth it would be the city of Milwaukee that would lead the cost figures in the levy parade and MPS would drop to second place. The voucher school district known as Milwaukee Parental Choice Program would be tucked into any pie graph just behind Milwaukee County and ahead of the MMSD and MATC. Nor has the state added a single dime in a year to the High Poverty Offset Aid used to sell the voucher program in Milwaukee though state tax credits and offsets have reduced the MPS portion of the so-called MPS levy…

To put it another way that would spell it out for the bean counters, the city’s tax levy has gone up a modest 1.2% since 2013 (and the city has been a responsible steward of the public money) but the MPS, listed as rising 1% in costs, actually dropped by .06%. It was the MPCP that actually went up 8.5%, so while MPS is spending less this year it looks like it is spending more.
And the voucher backers aren’t done with their attempts to deceive the public on the costs their cronyist giveaway cause for the average citizen. Take a look at this garbage from School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender, who felt a need to send out a press release in light of the fact that the vast majority of voucher students were already attending private school before the student got his/her voucher. In the process, Bender inadvertently gives away how getting their hands on taxpayer dollars adds a source of funding and flexibility for these (mostly-religious) private schools.
School Choice Wisconsin interviewed all the WPCP schools and found some interesting enrollment trends not mentioned in the [Department of Public Instruction’s’] press release. First, 99% of the students that were previously attending the private school before receiving a voucher were attending on a scholarship. As only low-income students qualify for the WPCP, this is not surprising.

Second,the private schools were able to offer their freed-­‐up scholarship dollars to public school students who had applied for a voucher, but were not lucky enough to be drawn in the lottery. In the end, 237 students that were attending public schools last year at taxpayer expense are now attending private school on a scholarship. Those students joined the 101 public school students who were selected through the lottery for a voucher.
In other words, they are using the voucher money (which comes from taxpayers throughout the state) to free up scholarship money that allows them to steal students from public schools. At the same time, the vouchers lead to less funding for the public schools, and requires them to rely more on property taxes to pay for the lost state aid. How is that not a “separate-but-equal” system of education where one type of school gets advantages that other types of schools do not? And notice Bender doesn’t talk about raising teacher pay or increasing the quality of the school, because the voucher program is only about grabbing more resources for the school and the church that often operates it. What a total scam!

But wait, there’s more from ol’ Jimmy, as he tries the zombie lie of “voucher schools cost less.”
For taxpayers, this means that, over time, those students that move from public schools to scholarships or vouchers in private schools cost less. These fiscal trends are certainly complicated, but the impact of this program is very straightforward – it connects students and parents with quality schools at a lower cost.
One problem with that argument. WE DON’T KNOW IF IT COSTS LESS TO EDUCATE A KID IN A VOUCHER SCHOOL. Bender himself mentioned above that donations and scholarships and other sources of funding go into these voucher schools beyond just taxpayer dollars, so unless we have all those costs included, we really can’t make the apples-to-apples comparison with public schools on whether they truly are “lower cost.” It could just as easily be true that these voucher schools are more top-heavy with administrative salaries and with higher overall costs per student than public schools, but since the voucher schools won’t open the books on ALL of their sources of funding, we don’t have the ability to make that comparison.

What we can do is to look at the results that have come out of these schools in Milwaukee after 25 years of their voucher program being in effect, and they aren’t too good. For example, we know that voucher schools scored lower than MPS students on standardized tests in the last school year, and that sketchy schools are still being allowed to grab $4.6 million this year in taxpayer funding despite having only 2% of its students rank as “proficient” in reading. If Scott Walker, the WisGOP Legislature and the voucher backers that funded their campaigns (and who ran ads that were about any topic BUT education) truly cared about raising the quality of education in Wisconsin, they’d cut these schools off from state aid, much like how they might try to do with certain public schools within MPS and other urban districts. If these people were truly interesting in reforming education, they would immediately reduce funding for voucher schools with 2% proficiency and/or demand high standards from the schools that are allowed to stay in the voucher program.

But the WisGOPs and the voucher lobbyists aren’t asking for that, are they? Nope, they’re about the MONEY AND POWER, and they don’t care what happens to Milwaukee’s property taxpayers or improving the state’s quality of teaching or its labor pool, or pretty much anything else that will suffer as a result of their greed

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Today's audit question- how do you keep Wisconsinites from their benefits?

Another day, another audit from the Legislative Audit Bureau. This one was organized after complaints that Wisconsinites were facing barriers in filing unemployment claims with the state’s Department of Workforce Development. Turns out that they had good reason to complain, as a large amount of people looking to contact DWD by phone in order to receive their benefits weren’t able to get through, and found themselves kicked out of the state’s automated phone system.
DWD indicated that it typically limited the size of the queues in order to minimize wait times. If more calls were received than available spots in a queue, some calls were blocked from entering the queue, and the individuals were instructed to call again later. In FY 2013-14, almost 1.7 million calls to the call centers, or 60.2 percent of the total, were blocked because a queue was full.

Call volumes were high from December 2013 through January 2014, compared to other times in FY 2013-14. During that two-month period, individuals made an average of 93,000 calls per week to the telephone line for initial claims. During other months in the fiscal year, individuals made an average of less than 10,000 calls per week to that telephone line.

The percentage of telephone calls blocked because a queue was full varied considerably during certain months in FY 2013-14, as shown in Figure 1. From December 2013 through January 2014, more than 80.0 percent of the 836,700 calls to the telephone line for initial claims were blocked. In contrast, less than 10.0 percent of the 155,500 calls from February through June 2014 were blocked.
December and January are typically the highest months for unemployment claims in Wisconsin, due to colder weather ending seasonal work and holiday-related layoffs, but having more than 4 out of 5 calls not even get through is absurd. And the report goes on to note that the Fiscal Year 2013-14 had a much higher rate of rejection than the two years before it, despite a larger amount of unemployment claims being reported in those prior years.

Total initial claims filed, Wisconsin
FY 2011-12 945,400
FY 2012-13 792,300
FY 2013-14 520,100

“Kickout” rate, DWD unemployment benefits
FY 2011-12 43.5%
FY 2012-13 41.8%
FY 2013-14 60.2%

It sure makes you wonder if some of that 34.4% drop in initial claims for 2013-14 might be related to these phone issues, though the Obama Jobs Recovery picking up steam also played a role in bringing those numbers down. Quite convenient that the drop happened ahead of the 2014 elections, didn’t it? (As Fox News would say, “I’m just throwing it out there!”)

It is mentioned in the audit that DWD has taken action in recent months to increase the ability to file unemployment claims online and to allow individuals to obtain their benefits information, and that more temporary employees are to be hired for the peak benefit season that occurs this time of the year. And since those changes started over the last two months, there has been a noticeable early uptick in the number of new unemployment claims filed in the state (as pointed out in this post from last week).

But the lack of capacity that led to all these kickouts on the DWD phone line calls to mind another LAB report from last week, where they reported the Government Accountability Board could not carry out its duties due to understaffing and a related lack of resources. As State Sen. (and Joint Legislative Audit Committee member) Kathleen Vinehout notes, this seems to be a trend in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan, where an agency’s ability to do its job often goes by the wayside as a result of budget-cutting and “efficiency” moves.
Problems must be corrected. The agency response to the audit sets out details on how to do this. Some agency failures happened before 2011. Clearly tight budgets and tough workloads are not the only explanation.

But lawmakers can’t starve the agency, load it with additional work, and then complain staff isn’t doing the job fast enough.

If Wisconsin wants clean elections, transparent campaigns and lobbying and ethics among elected officials, the state must provide the GAB with adequate resources to do the job.
It is instructive to note that the Republican chairs of the Audit Committee (Sen. Rob Cowles and Rep. Samantha Kerkman) put out a release today that was supportive of the DWD’s attempts to improve its services and are taking a wait-and-see approach on how they pan out. This is in marked contrast to the WisGOP/right-wing media machine’s drumbeat to denigrate and blow up the GAB, and stack it with more GOP hacks to allow “decisions to be made.” Funny how the remedy tends to change depending on whether or not the GOP is in charge of the agency, isn’t it?

It proves yet again that Republicans think the biggest role of government is not to protect the common good, but instead to use the resources of government to grab more money for themselves and their campaign contributors, and to be utilized government as a mechanism to grab more power and control.

Monday, December 15, 2014

WisGOP doesn't want to fix GAB flaws- they want to rig it

In Wisconsin’s right-wing world, Friday’s release of the Legislative Audit Bureau’s report on the state’s Government Accountability Board is the documentation they need to defang and deform reform the agency, amid right-wing claims the agency is not doing its job in running elections fairly. And to a point, I agree, the GAB isn’t doing a good enough job. But the reasons why I think that probably aren’t the same as the righties- because the audit on GAB clearly shows it to be an underfunded overseer of elections and campaigns, and it needs more resources and staffing to carry out its job.

Among other problems, the LAB notes that the GAB wasn’t following up on violations on campaign finance disclosures and other related election laws.
In overseeing campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws, statutes allow GAB to assess penalties for various violations. In February 2008, GAB approved a schedule indicating the penalties staff are to assess for various statutory violations, including campaign finance reports that were filed late. We found that staff developed a manual that specified penalty amounts that differed from those in GAB’s schedule. GAB did not approve this manual. From FY 2010-11 through FY 2012-13, staff did not assess penalties for 655 of 674 reports that were late and should have resulted in penalties under the staff’s manual. All 19 penalties that staff did assess were for amounts inconsistent with GAB’s penalty schedule and the staff’s manual.

Staff indicated that they focused on obtaining compliance with statutory requirements, rather than assessing penalties for statutory violations. Staff were unable to provide us with complete information on penalties assessed for violations of campaign contribution limits, or on the number of penalties assessed for violations of lobbying laws, the amounts assessed, or why penalties were sometimes not assessed or were waived even though violations had occurred.

Staff did not regularly update GAB with complete information on efforts they took to enforce campaign finance, lobbying, and code of ethics laws. For example, staff did not regularly update GAB on the extent to which they assessed penalties for violations of these laws, the amounts assessed, and the amounts paid. However, staff did regularly update GAB on the extent to which state officials and employees did not file statements of economic interests on time.
And even in the handful of cases where organizations and candidates were penalized for breaking these rules, the amount of the fine was miniscule- $2,775 total for the 19 violations that occurred between 2010 and 2012. The GAB's toothless enforcement and small amount of fines makes it a worthwhile gamble to flout campaign finance limits and hide donation information, since most violations apparently will not be dealt with, and any prosecution and fines that do take place usually won’t happen until well after the elections (kind of like how the John Doe investigation has been stalled by legal maneuvers). If that’s the way things are being run, why not cheat and hide the sources of money from the GAB and the public?

In addition, the LAB says 119 campaign finance reports were missing when they should have been required, and added that GAB staff would often stop requesting information if a candidate or entity wouldn’t respond, especially if that candidate didn’t win. With that in mind, what’s stopping a shadowy group from dropping a ton of money on ads or other election-related activities at a key moment, and then slinking away after the election with no trail of who these people are and why they would be interested in these elections. Which is exactly what the John Doe targets and related right-wing oligarchs want to do- to spend as much money as they want and conceal the source of those funds, so the people don’t know who’s pulling the puppet strings.

The GAB was apparently aware of these problems, and asked for funding to hire enough staff to handle these concerns. But Governor Scott Walker and the WisGOP Legislature didn’t feel like providing the resources that GAB said they needed to adequately do their job. Makes you wonder why, doesn’t it? As LAB’s report notes
GAB has included requests for additional staff in each of its last three biennial budget requests. In its 2011-13 Biennial Budget Request, it requested to convert 21.00 federally funded project positions into permanent GPR-funded positions, but this request was not included in the Governor’s Biennial Budget Proposal. In its 2013-15 Biennial Budget Request, GAB requested six new GPR-funded positions for its Elections Division, but this request was not included in the Governor’s Biennial Budget Proposal. In its 2015-17 Biennial Budget Request, GAB requested to convert 22.0 federally funded project positions into permanent federally funded positions, the costs of which GAB’s staff indicated can be covered by existing federal revenue until FY 2016-17. Thereafter, another funding source would need to be identified to fund these positions. The Biennial Budget Request indicates that the loss of these 22.0 positions would impair the ability of GAB’s staff to fulfill certain statutorily required duties, such as overseeing election administration. For example, all staff who train local election officials are currently in federally funded project positions.
You can bet the real WisGOP plan is to defund GAB even further, to allow even more sketchiness to slip by, and allow for more rigging of our campaign finance system in favor of the rich and powerful. It’ll work even better if the GOP is able to “pack” the GAB with hacks who will side with pro-Republican interests, to destroy any semblance of independence and upholding of ethics that may exist within the GAB.

In contrast to the major flaws in enforcing campaign finance and ethics rules, Wisconsin’s elections seemed to run fairly smoothly. From GAB’s own report (see Page 60 of the packet for this week’s meeting), it seems like the biggest problems were not that voting requirements were ignored on Election Day (unlike what WisGOP and AM radio will tell you), but instead that a small minority of poll workers are being too restrictive when it comes to letting people vote. This is particularly true of people who had already registered ahead of November 4.
•There were several reports of inspectors requiring registered voters to provide proof of residence, and requiring registering voters to produce multiple proof of residence documents. (A municipal clerk stated that a TV station in the Brown County area was reporting that more than one type of proof of residence was required, which may explain the occurrences in that area, but does not explain the reports of this activity in other parts of the state.)

• There was only one confirmed report of inspectors requiring photo ID. The clerk confirmed she had instructed her inspectors to do this because she was not aware that the photo ID requirement was not in effect for the General Election. (#headdesk)

•After the polls closed on Election Night, the City of Stoughton Clerk and Election Inspectors reviewed the voting equipment results tapes and noticed there were only 16 votes recorded for the City of Stoughton “Move to Amend” advisory referendum. The City Clerk immediately contacted the Dane County Clerk’s office and G.A.B. Following G.A.B. staff’s recommendation, a hand count of the votes cast for the referendum was conducted at the Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBOC) meeting on Monday, November 10, 2014. The results of the hand count revealed that the referendum passed 4,440 to 992, and the referendum results were certified by the City of Stoughton municipal board of canvassers.

Further investigation exposed a coding error on the ballots for the municipal referendum. After reviewing the Public Test tapes and test deck after the election, it was found that the coding problem was not caught at the time of the Public Test. Measures have been put into place to help prevent this from happening again in the future.
What might be more concerning is the fact that several types of election equipment were not audited for several years after the election had taken place (noted on pages 49-51 of the audit’s PDF), meaning the horse was already out of the barn if there was any chicanery going on that allowed vote totals to be misreported. The audit says that the error rates for election equipment were within the acceptable federal standard, but the fact that these audits weren’t taking place until well after elections and the “winner” had taken office is worrysome- and a big reason why seems to be underfunding of the GAB.

Likewise, our local municipalities also seem to be underfunded when it comes to properly running elections. Look at this passage in the LAB’s audit.
In December 2013, GAB’s staff surveyed county clerks and received responses pertaining to1,231 municipalities, including 649 municipalities that reported using electronic voting equipment. County clerks reported that 325 of the 649 municipalities (50.1 percent) used equipment at least ten years old, and that 260 municipalities (40.1 percent) used equipment that had been approved by the former State Elections Board under 1990 federal standards that have since been superseded. GAB’s staff indicated that although some municipal clerks are concerned that older equipment is more likely to cease operating, the cost to purchase new equipment and train local election officials to use it has meant that some older equipment has not been replaced. In addition, staff indicated that some clerks are concerned that new equipment may not integrate with existing equipment or provide the desired functionality.
Given that a lack of time and resources to adequately do the job of regulating and enforcing elections and campaigns seems to be the biggest problem in the GAB, maybe we should worry about taking care of those duties before we start blowing up its board and structure. Just a thought.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Comments opened up

I've slightly opened up the comments some, as I've heard a couple of mentions from others that read that they can't necessarily comment without a Google ID.

However, I'm still moderating posts and if goofballs start trying to pollute the board, they and the "open commenting" will be gone as fast as it's come. So be adults out there. And not putting your name on certain takes will be openly mocked.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Listen to Professor Warren

I make no secret of my admiration for Senator Elizabeth Warren- no one, along with maybe Bernie Sanders, are the ones who truly "tell it like it is" in the U.S. Senate when it comes to how rigged America's economy is for the rich and powerful at the expense of the vast majority of the rest of us, and how it has to be fixed with real actions taken against the perpetrators. I proudly have an "Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party" bumper sticker with this in mind.

But to see Sen. Warren CALL OUT CITIGROUP BY NAME for the better part of 10 minutes on the Senate floor? "Dodd-Frank should have broken you into pieces!" WOW! And shine a light on the revolving door of insiders that go between this bank and the highest levels of the Treasury Department and the White House should make everyone shiver.

I find myself constantly saying "DAYYYY-AMMMM!" during this speech, as Senator Warren pulls back the curtain in how our system truly works.

The part that's truly scary about Sen. Warren's speech is that almost everyone else on the Senate floor knows how this works, but almost no one is willing to say it. Let's hope Sens. Baldwin and Johnson follow the lead of Sen. Warren and remember who they truly work for- THE PEOPLE THAT VOTED THEM IN, and not the lobbyists and DC insiders that can't cast a ballot for them.

I have good reason to hope Baldwin will have the common sense to vote to take out the pro-Wall Street and big-money junk that's being attached to this budget bill, and "clean it up." Tammy's already indicated that she will follow Sen. Warren's lead, and vote against President Obama's choice of Antonio Weiss to be Secretary of the Treasury, saying that Weiss will favor Wall Street over Main Street. Let's see if she will keep up the good work on the CR_omnibus.

But counting on (mo)Ron Johnson, the "Kochs' model senator", to also step up and shoot this pro-oligarch crap down? Yeah, I can't really see that happening.

EDIT: Here's some more truth from the great Matt Taibbi.

Conservatives for welfare, and liberals for big business. It doesn't make sense unless we're not really dealing with any divided collection of conservatives or liberals, and are instead talking about one nebulous mass of influence, money and interests. I think of it as a single furiously-money-collecting/favor-churning oligarchical Beltway party, a thing that former Senate staffer and author Jeff Connaughton calls "The Blob."

What's happening here is that The Blob, which includes supposed enemies like Reid and Graham, wants to give donation-factory banks like Citi and Chase a handout. But a coalition of heretics, including the liberal Warren, the genuinely conservative Vitter and (surprisingly to me) the usually party-orthodox Nancy Pelosi is saying no to the naked giveaway.

Is killing the Citigroup provision really worth the trouble? Is it a "Hill to die on"? Maybe not in itself. But the key here is that a victory on the swaps issue will provide the Beltway hacks with a playbook for killing the rest of the few meaningful things in Dodd-Frank, probably beginning with the similar Volcker Rule, designed to prevent other types of gambling by federally-insured banks. Once they cave on the swaps issue, it won't be long before the whole bill vanishes, and we can go all the way back to our pre-2008 regulatory Nirvana.
And to see Tammy side with the Blob, and allow this garbage to go through to the president's desk (apparently in exchange for a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee) is a very disturbing thought. It feels the date of explosion is getting nearer.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Bucks arena update- BC losses and new site changing?

The Bucks arena issue hasn't had any formal legislation to fund it or a even a site finalized as of this time, but that doesn't mean there weren't some intriguing events that have been going on to get things lined up with this half-a-billion-dollar project.

Don Walker of the Journal-Sentinel had an interesting article up today going over the Bucks current facility at the Bradley Center, and noted that the facility had an operating loss of $1.9 million for fiscal year 2013-14. The operating losses come at a time when the facility’s debt is near $20 million, and that debt will have to be paid off with any deal that comes with a new arena.
The net loss, which includes depreciation of $3.3 million, was a decline of $3.1 million compared with the prior fiscal year. Total operating revenue was $18 million, compared with $20.7 million for fiscal 2013.

Steve Costello, president and CEO of the BMO Harris Bradley Center, said the arena continues to be in a stable fiscal position. And there is hope, he said, that a reinvigorated Bucks franchise and an uptick in concerts will translate into a better year in the current fiscal year.

Costello acknowledged the debt the arena owes to banks and the Bucks in the form of tenant-shared revenue was "significant but manageable."
The article mentions that the biggest culprits in the 13% loss in revenue was a horrible 2013-14 that led to the lowest home attendance for any NBA team, and a season when the Bucks had the worst record in the league. In addition, the facility only hosted 7 concerts, as opposed to the 10-12 it would usually host. It would have been even worse, if not for the facility hosting March Madness with the Badgers being part of 2 of the 3 sessions, leading to sellouts and obvious upticks in concessions and revenues for those days.

But things may look slightly better for the Bradley Center in 2014-15. The improved fortunes of the Bucks are certainly playing a role, as the Deer have played at or near .500 ball for the first quarter of the NBA season. While they are still 4th from the bottom for home attendance at this point in the season, one would think that the Bucks staying in the playoff hunt (a strong possibility in the very weak Eastern Conference) would encourage some people to check them out the last 3 months of the year.

The vibe definitely seems different than the empty-arena death march the Bucks had in 2014 on their way to a league-worst 15-67 record. ESPN’s Zach Lowe had an impressive, in-depth article breaking down the Bucks plans this week, and how their future seems brighter than what it offered two years ago. The team is also investing in new positions to improve the team’s product, as well as its visibility in the Milwaukee area.
The Bucks think they have two franchise players, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, super-young combo forwards with preposterous arms, a determined work ethic, and varied skill sets they’re only discovering. Any team built around 19- and 20-year-olds is a half-decade from anything like contention, and the Bucks under new ownership aren’t going to rush the process as they did in chasing the no. 8 seed under Herb Kohl….

Antetokounmpo and Parker are the only sure bets to be on this roster in five years. The franchise is content in the meantime to measure its other young players, especially Brandon Knight and Larry Sanders, and watch Jason Kidd imprint his identity. The team’s new owners, Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, have spent millions building the infrastructure that must be in place if the Bucks hope to chase big things.

They’ve already hired about 50 new people, including a bundle of sales associates and a new sports psychologist. They’ll beef up the medical staff over the next few months, Lasry says, and they purchased a speedy new server for the team’s analytics department. They even hired the first director of merchandising in franchise history after Lasry became disenchanted at how difficult it was to buy Bucks gear.
Also in Lowe’s article is a discussion of the Bucks’ arena situation, which Lasry says he plans to build in the next two years, as he doesn’t want to be part of the team if it moves.
The need for a new arena and practice facility looms over everything. The BMO Harris Bradley Center is dull and outdated, and the Bucks practice 15 minutes from downtown in the back of a Catholic archdiocese. The NBA holds an option to buy the team back at a cheap price if the Bucks haven’t started construction on a new arena by fall 2017, and there will be a vigorous debate if the new owners request public funding.

Lasry is confident the Bucks will secure a deal, if only because the buyback clause and the looming Seattle threat have everyone backed into a corner. “The reason it’s gonna get done is that no one has a choice,” he says. He and [Bucks co-owner Wes] Edens are based in New York, and they will not entertain the idea of moving the Bucks to a West Coast market as long as they own the team. “I have no interest in being far away,” Lasry says. “The fun of owning the team is being part of the community. You can’t do that if you’re four or five hours away.”

Edens and Lasry have pledged $100 million to an arena project that could cost more than $500 million. Kohl made an identical pledge on his way out. It’s unclear where the rest of the money might come from, and any plan to divert funds from the coffers of a Rust Belt city into the hands of wealthy financiers will draw justifiable scrutiny. That is a real issue; sports are silly in comparison.
Speaking of the arena, Don Walker’s article on the Bradley Center also has an update on where that proposed arena might be sighted. Originally, the land that Journal Communications owns across from the Bradley Center was mentioned as a possible spot, but that option seems to be bogging down, and other sites in downtown Milwaukee are looking more likely, including the area just north of the BC, which heads out toward the Park East land on N. 6th Street near Juneau.
[Bradley Center president and CEO] Costello declined further comment on the arena land. Much of it is already vacant and could conceivably be the easiest path for the Bucks, which face an NBA-imposed deadline of the fall of 2017 to have a new arena in place.

Talks between Journal Communications, which owns a square block near the BMO Harris Bradley Center, and the Bucks have hit a snag. Sources say it is now unlikely Journal Communications, publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Bucks will be able to reach agreement on sale of the property as part of a new arena site. (Hey, I guess they’d know, right?)

For months, the Bucks targeted the Journal Communications land, plus the land now occupied by the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and possibly the Milwaukee Theatre, as the preferred site. With that site now in doubt, the Bucks have focused on the BMO Harris Bradley Center land, as well as city-owned land at the corner of N. 4th St. and W. Wisconsin Ave., and land at the corner of N. 2nd and W. Michigan streets.
And of course, the financing is the other issue. I’ve previously discussed the mechanism of a “jock tax” to pay for the estimated $150 million of public financing a new Bucks arena is expected to cost, and I’m still very skeptical of the idea because it’ll take away those revenues for general usage throughout the state over the next 20 years. Wisconsin already has major fiscal issues from prior tax and voucher school giveaways to sort out before we can think about adding to those problems with a Bucks deal, and we should probably be dealing with other fiscal and social concerns in the state’s largest city and economic engine ahead of helping one specific company (the Bucks).

But the wheels are definitely still churning, and the Don Walker article indicates a site for a new Bucks arena is likely to be known in the next 3 weeks (!). Then it becomes crunch time with a new Legislative session in Madison and new state budget that will be part of these discussions, whether in the form of another subsidy from state taxpayers (as has been done under gubernatorial tenures of both Jim Doyle and Scott Walker), and/or a new funding mechanism for the arena project. If a deal does not get worked out, then we get to find out what might happen with the team’s future in Milwaukee.

Lots of things are going to heat up in 2015 when it comes to the Bucks, and it’s worth it to stay on top of the twists and turns, which will go well beyond the team’s development on the court.