I wanted to end up my series on the Bucks arena question by going over the issues surrounding who would get any public funding surrounding a replacement for the Bradley Center, and how that funding would be organized. Bruce Murphy's article in Urban Milwaukee goes through many of the political and financial questions surrounding a new Bucks arena. He has 10 overall questions, all of which are good, but I want to focus in on a few in particular.
Getting Regional Help: The long-running dog and pony show led by [MMAC President Tim] Sheehy, complete with a huge regional task force considering ways to support attractions like the Milwaukee Art Museum, Marcus Center and (the real point of it all) a new NBA arena, has also triggered a couple deathlessly sober studies from the Public Policy Forum pondering the financial issues involved. Meanwhile, every surrounding county board from here to (almost) Illinois has passed resolutions saying nyet, not one kopeck for those grasping urbanites in Milwaukee. This won’t be an easy sell, either.Allow me to jump back in there. What's hinted at by Murphy above, is that unlike the 1990s when the Miller Park tax was being debated, our state government is now run by TeaBaggers from the 262 who team up with right-wing JournalComm radio stations. This is not to the Bucks' benefit if there has to be action taken in Madison (although we can hope some of this changes in the next term starting in January 2015), and not only due to the fact that WisGOP generally isn't interested in helping the city of Milwaukee. It's also because the new owners have something in common with the Bucks' former owner.
Finding a Stealth Tax: If you can’t convince voters to tax themselves for millionaire owners and ballplayers, you have several possible ways to snooker them. Have state legislators who live outside the area pass a local tax, as was done for the five-county Miller Park plan (call this taxation with almost no representation); that won’t fly this time as Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington Counties oppose it and have too much clout in the legislature. Or grab a tax outsiders will pay, like a car rental or hotel tax (but it can’t raise enough revenue). Or find a tax no one understands, like the proposed “Super TIF,” which takes the complicated scheme of a property tax incremental financing plan and somehow layers on sales and income taxes. Since this will require legislative approval, it will probably be shrouded in technical jargon, ideally resembling a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to match Churchill’s description of Soviet Russia.
Avoiding Partisan Debate: Uh oh, it turns out new owner Marc Lasry is a flaming Democrat who has done fundraisers for Barack Obama, even holding one in his Upper East Side Manhattan home. Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators don’t even tolerate moderate members of their own party and their lap dog Charlie Sykes has already written a story slapping at Lasry (which like everything published at Right Wisconsin cannot be read by mere mortals). Given how hard it is to pass legislation the voters hate (see Miller Park), how hard will it be to help a friend of your enemy?Pretty good questions from Mr. Murphy, although Sykes says nothing without a wink and a nod from the Milwaukee oligarch community who wants this arena to be built, and WTMJ certainly would like to keep the Bucks on their winter night telecasts so their daytime hate radio shows can benefit from some of those listeners (especially with the Badgers leaving the station). So it could be fun to see what mental gymnastics Char-LIE will try to pull as this issue develops.
Getting Media Support: The Journal Sentinel and conservative radio squawkers Sykes and Mark Belling pulled out all the stops to browbeat us into supporting the subsidy of Miller Park. (The Journal company even lobbied legislators to support the plan.) So far the Journal Sentinel has played along by burying the story about Golden State Warriors’ arena plan (though someone may need to stifle Stingl’s sly comments). JS sports writer Michael Hunt is once again writing articles offering his contempt for the “obstructionists” who would dare ask questions about any proposed deal. (Don’t they understand Hunt might lose his job if there’s no NBA team to cover?) But do the white suburban listeners of Sykes and Belling care as much about NBA basketball as Major League Baseball — much less when the team is co-owned by a dastardly Democrat?
One other point on the Super-TIF issue, which is also brought up on the Murphy article. The NBA's Golden State Warriors announced this week that they were going to build their new arena in downtown San Francisco without any direct taxpayer assistance. Instead, the Warriors' arena will use a combination of private investment and city-state infrastructure to revitalize a pier area next to San Francisco Bay. Obviously, Milwaukee doesn't have the money or size of the Bay Area, but this type of model will certainly be pointed to by people who are wary of using taxpayer dollars to directly fund a new Bucks arena.
I also want to expound on Murphy's other questions. Who would run a new Bucks arena, and administer any Bucks arena tax? Does it go through the Wisconsin Center District (whose governance I described last month when March Madness visited the Bradley Center). That would be the current mechanism and wouldn't require much in terms of legislation to put a new arena under their control (if it was in that area). But the Wisconsin Center District would be unlikely to make up enough money to adequately support a new Bucks arena with its current sales tax, as Chairman Franklyn Gimbel noted last June, and the District is spending $18 million a year just to pay off its debt. Obviously, a new arena would add to that number unless they could find a buyer for the U.S. Cellular Arena and/or Milwaukee Theatre.
With that in mind, the Milwaukee Business Journal asked a very legitimate question this week- "Is it time to rethink the Wisconsin Center District?" in light of the new Bucks arena issue? If it's not the Wisconsin Center District, is it another board administering the funds if there's a designated sales tax, like we have with the Miller Park and Packer taxes, and is that board appointed (like the Wisconsin Center) or is it elected? Or do you go through the city as a Super-TIF project, which would remove the need for new legislation at the state level (just the city one), although if it's in an already-developed area, like near Wisconsin Avenue by the U.S. Cellular Arena, is that a proper use of TIF funds?
Lastly, if you did the public funding in the form of a sales tax, there's the initial concern of getting it through the State Legislature and the Governor's Office, regardless of who controls those bodies in 2015 or 2016 when this issue would come up. And also which area would collect the tax? Is it the Wisconsin Center District, the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, or even the Miller Park tax area (that last one's unlikely)? And should the people of that area be able to vote on the tax (as they did with the Packer tax in Brown County), or does it only need to be passed through the State Legislature (like the Miller Park tax was)?
And should this sales tax only be for the arena, or should it go to fund other items? Sheehy has mentioned a "cultural tax" that would fund items like the Milwaukee Art Museum and Public Museum along with a Bucks arena. On the other hand, Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan has floated the idea of putting a non-binding, referendum on the November ballot asking voters if they'd approve of any new sales tax be put in toward a new Bucks arena (Weishan's intent was to show the answer was "No", and that other priorities would be needed). The County Board sent that idea back to committee yesterday, with Supervisor Jim "Luigi" Schmitt saying the measure was unnecessary because the County would clearly vote such a measure down This strikes me as an interesting reason not to have it (why not find out with a vote and be on more definitive ground when the Legislature takes it up?), but I'm betting that move has more to do with not wanting it to be an issue in November's election for governor.
So you can see there are many facets and details that are far from hammered out regarding a potential new Bucks arena and/or development area. And all of them can either work together, or be a monkey wrench that threatens the entire project. Right now, there isn't nearly enough information to see which way this is going to fall.