Opinion writer

Scott Walker had a bill-signing today, but something tells me this isn’t one he’s going to be trumpeting too loudly out on the campaign trail:

Gov. Scott Walker signed the Milwaukee Bucks arena funding bill Wednesday morning at the Exposition Center at Wisconsin State Fair Park.

The legislation commits $250 million in public money to the team’s new arena over the next 20 years.

The bill was passed by the Senate and Assembly last month on bipartisan votes.

The governor, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, had signaled that he was unlikely to use his partial veto power to carve up the legislation when he signs it.

“It’s critical not only for those who love sports, but the main reason I got into it was because it protected state revenues,” Walker said recently.

That $250 million that taxpayers will be spending for the benefit of a single private enterprise just happens to be the same amount that Walker succeeded in cutting from the state’s university system this year. And an interesting sidelight to the story is that one of the Bucks owners, Jon Hammes, is a national finance co-chairman of Walker’s campaign and has given $150,000 to a Walker super PAC.

That isn’t to say that Walker approved this deal because he was bribed. The real problem isn’t bribery, it’s extortion. Like so many team owners before them, the owners of the Bucks decided to essentially blackmail the state: Give us a new stadium, or we pack up and leave. A politician who allowed a beloved team to depart would certainly pay a steep political price. If Walker is displaying cowardice, it’s of an extremely common sort. So Walker is really no worse on this issue than many other politicians, both Republicans and Democrats.

But one might have expected more from a politician who is basing his presidential campaign on his eagerness to “fight.” This combativeness is central to Walker’s appeal — but it turns out that he’s only interested in fighting people like union members. Extortionist plutocrats, not so much.

And Walker’s justification — that ponying up for the stadium will be worth it because of the economic impact — has been disproven by just about every analysis of stadium financing. When taxpayers put out hundreds of millions of dollars for shiny new stadiums, they don’t make back the money in increased tax revenue. If you want to argue that it’s worth paying for solely because people love sports even if it costs taxpayers a great deal, then go ahead and make that argument. But no politician does.

Even more fundamentally, one has to ask why “small government” conservatives — as Walker and every other Republican candidate considers himself — think that government should be in the business of building stadiums. Don’t they believe in the power and wisdom of the market? If the shrewd businessmen who own the Bucks would increase their profits by building themselves a new stadium, then they’ll do it. If it wouldn’t increase their profits, then they won’t, and the market will have spoken.

It has become fashionable lately for conservatives to decry “crony capitalism,” which involves well-connected corporations and rich people using their influence to milk the government for their own benefit. Even the Koch brothers talk about ending welfare for the wealthy, so firmly committed are they to the purity of market forces. But it turns out that Koch Industries benefits from hundreds of millions of dollars in government largesse, like so many other corporations. As Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute explains (in the National Review!), most of the Republican presidential candidates say they oppose crony capitalism despite long records of supporting it in various forms.

What do we learn from all this? It’s another reminder that the principles of small government and fiscal responsibility that conservative politicians like Walker pledge their fealty to are highly contingent on who’s benefiting and who’s being hurt.