Special Interests Unite on New Bucks Arena

November 14, 2013

by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

We’re told, if we’re not entirely convinced, the Milwaukee Bucks need a new arena. The BMO Harris Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee is twenty-five years old this year. While it still stands in pretty good shape, some supporters of a new arena would lead you to believe the Bucks play in the ruins of the Roman Coliseum.

So never mind that Bucks owner Herb Kohl was one of the richest members of the Senate where he served for 24 years, or that the team has a salary budget for this year of $56 million. They need a new arena, and the supporters of a new arena want taxpayers to pay for it.

But there’s a problem. The last time taxpayers in Wisconsin were tapped for a stadium for a professional sports team was for the Green Bay Packers. Only the fans didn’t get a new stadium, they only got the old stadium renovated. The Green Bay Packers are far more popular in Wisconsin than the Milwaukee Bucks will ever be, but the legislature only allowed an increase in the sales tax in Brown County, and only after a referendum.

That won’t do, of course. Supporters of a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks want the surrounding counties to pay, too. After all, having a major entertainment draw in downtown Milwaukee somehow helps the businesses in Tichigan, Oconomowoc and Allenton, or so they believe.

But the last time a sporting venue was built with tax money from the surrounding counties, Republican State Senator George Petak in Racine was recalled. The Republicans in the state legislature haven’t forgotten that.

Part of that bitter pill was the Republican majority at the time was lost with the Petak recall. The brief time the Republicans were in the majority was the result of agreeing not to block the nomination of then-Democratic State Senator Lynn Adelman to the federal bench. Judge Adelman was appointed for life and is now presiding over the trial of Wisconsin’s voter photo identification law. With the recall, the only gain the Republicans made while briefly in the majority was a truth in sentencing law sponsored by a young state representative named Scott Walker.

Nor have legislators forgotten that the five-county sales tax was supposed to end in 2010. The sunset date for the tax continues to be pushed down the road as more and more expensive upgrades are made to Miller Park. Meanwhile the value of the Brewers continues to go up for owner Mark Attanasio due to a very favorable lease for his baseball business.

Did we mention Herb Kohl is rich? Unlike the Milwaukee Brewers organization at the time Miller Park was proposed, the Milwaukee Bucks are on healthier footing. It’s also known that Kohl was once interested in selling the team. Had the Bucks been playing in a state-of-the-art facility with a favorable lease, Kohl may have found his buyer, and possibly at a much higher price. It’s hard to build support for public financing of a new arena when the team owner hasn’t said how far he’s willing to reach into his own deep pockets to increase the value of his asset.

No wonder Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a Milwaukee Bucks season ticket holder, recently came out in opposition to extending the Miller Park sales tax even further to cover the costs of building a new arena.

So, given this political impasse, what are supporters of a new arena for the Bucks supposed to do? We may see the strategic direction they are heading by looking at the make-up of their new task force. They are going to line up more and more organizations to the taxpayer trough to feed. They hope that by funding other “cultural” entities in Milwaukee, they will build a broader coalition of support for a new sales tax. A coalition, they hope, that is too big to fail.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce has appointed a 48-member task force, the Regional Cultural and Entertainment Capital Needs Task Force, to find a new revenue source for not only building the Milwaukee Bucks a new home but funding the wish lists of the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Milwaukee County Zoo, and others. The task force is heavily weighted towards special interests with their hands out and very few members could be said to have the interests of taxpayers in mind.

Bruce Murphy of UrbanMilwaukee.com wrote that a tax on out-of-county residents to pay for Milwaukee County institutions makes sense because the majority of the patrons come from outside Milwaukee County. However, that means people from outside Milwaukee County are also spending money in the county. If Milwaukee County finds these draws from outside to Milwaukee businesses worth subsidizing, then Milwaukee County alone should bear that burden.

Expecting Racine or Waukesha residents to subsidize through taxation institutions that act as magnets for drawing commerce from their counties into Milwaukee County is absurd, but I’m looking forward to Murphy’s column asking Milwaukee County taxpayers to subsidize the Les Paul exhibit at the Waukesha County museum.

Look for Murphy’s reasoning to be cobbled together with the usual outrageous claims of economic activity resulting from a new arena. Such claims are often inflated and academic studies have shown that building new infrastructure for professional sports teams can actually be economically detrimental.

The irony is that by signing on to a regional tax to subsidize their own operations, arts groups in Milwaukee County will be supporting subsidizing their competition for corporate sponsorships and season ticket holders. Making matters worse for local businesses and art groups, the reason why professional sports teams clamor for new facilities is because those facilities are so good at sucking up the limited entertainment budgets of their patrons.

What if the Milwaukee Bucks don’t get a new arena and they leave for somewhere else? WTMJ’s morning host Gene Mueller wrote, “Milwaukee is a better place with an NBA team and all of the other big city attractions that separate us from the Des Moines of the world.” Given the long term likelihood of keeping the Milwaukee Brewers due to a perpetually taxpayer subsidized stadium, Milwaukee will never be Des Moines, any more than when the Green Bay Packers stopped playing at the old County Stadium.

However, Detroit currently has three professional sports teams, and two of them are playing in relatively new stadiums. The Detroit Lions and the Detroit Tigers didn’t save Detroit from bankruptcy.

On the whole, I’d rather be in Des Moines.