Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed legislation Wednesday to spend $250 million from taxpayers on a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team — a deal he has championed for months despite fierce opposition from fiscal conservatives who usually agree with him.
The team’s ownership group — which includes one of Walker’s top campaign fundraisers — had threatened to move the Bucks to another state if the taxpayer financing did not come through. Walker said he did not want Wisconsin to lose the millions of dollars in taxes it collects on player and staff salaries, along with the other perks that come with having a professional basketball team in the state.
“The return on investment is 3 to 1 on this, so we think this is a good, solid move as a good steward of the taxpayers’ money here in Wisconsin,” Walker said Wednesday morning after he signed the legislation. “This is just simple mathematics.”
That argument has yet to win over many conservatives, who object to taxpayers subsidizing a professional basketball team owned by billionaire hedge-fund investors — especially at a time when the state has slashed funding for public education and the university system. It took nearly six months for Walker to rally enough support for the deal in the Republican-dominated legislature, nearly derailing passage of the state budget and forcing the governor to appeal to the Democrats he has clashed with during his four years in office.
Walker has also faced questions on the campaign trail about the deal and whether it fits with his image as a fiscal hawk not intimidated by threats. Many conservatives are also annoyed that one of the two main co-owners of the Bucks is Marc Lasry, a top bundler for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid.
The issue came up during a question-and-answer session at a donor retreat earlier this month in Southern California hosted by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who plan to spend around $900 million on the upcoming election and have called for an end to “corporate welfare.” Politico’s Mike Allen, who moderated the session, asked Walker: “What a number of your fellow small-government conservatives are saying to me is: ‘How in the hell could you support using taxpayer money for a stadium for an NBA team co-owned by a billionaire raising money for Hillary?’ ”
Walker responded that Wisconsin collects at least $6.5 million in taxes from the team each year, funding that would disappear if the team were to move.
“If you’re a business owner . . . and one of your biggest customers says you’ve got to upgrade your facility or I’m going to take my business somewhere else, anybody who is smart in business is going to make sure they keep that business,” he said.
Last year, longtime Bucks owner Herb Kohl — a former Democratic senator — sold the team for $550 million to Lasry and Wesley Edens, both of whom manage massive hedge funds in New York.
Other investors who have joined the team’s ownership group include Jon Hammes, a prominent Wisconsin real estate developer who has long supported Walker’s political campaigns and is now the co-chair of his presidential fundraising push. Amid the arena funding negotiations, a pro-Walker super PAC received a $150,000 donation from a limited-liability corporation registered to Hammes’s son.
The new owners promised to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee as long as the team got a new arena by 2017. The team currently plays in the BMO Harris Bradley Center, a 27-year-old facility that’s one of the oldest in the National Basketball Association. The small space lacks the amenities of modern arenas and has been blamed for some of the team’s problems.
Representatives for the team argued in legislative hearings this summer that the owners are at a disadvantage because Milwaukee is such a small market and that state residents should chip in a little.
Laurel Patrick, spokeswoman for Walker, said the governor did not meet with the team’s owners to discuss the arena funding.
The team’s investors pitched building a new arena in downtown Milwaukee that would anchor a new entertainment district, revitalizing that part of the city and creating more jobs. The total cost has been pegged at $500 million. Kohl agreed to chip in $100 million, with the new owners paying at least $150 million and Wisconsin taxpayers picking up the remaining $250 million.
This is not an unusual arrangement for Wisconsin. When the Milwaukee Brewers professional baseball team built a new stadium in the late 1990s, the five counties closest to the new facility imposed a new sales tax to pay for the construction. Walker was a member of the state assembly at the time and voted for the funding plan.
The Bucks arena proposal instantly sparked a backlash. Lawmakers from both parties questioned how the state had the money for a new basketball arena but not other priorities. Fiscally conservative advocacy groups lobbied against it, and conservative radio show hosts slammed the idea and any Republican who supported it.
In mid-July, comedian John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” criticized how sports teams with wealthy owners get taxpayers to pay for their lavish arenas and stadiums by threatening to move elsewhere and promising “economic magic.” He played a Bucks promotional video that dramatically showed a new arena having a ripple effect across Milwaukee and the entire state.
“Settle down, Milwaukee Bucks,” Oliver said. “For a start, I don’t think Wisconsin will be transformed by one new arena. And also, if you really are looking to make a tangible change, how about coming up with a better slogan than ‘Fear the Deer’? Deers aren’t scary. They’re timid forest ponies with sticks on their heads.”
After months of behind-closed-doors negotiations and rounds of changes, Wisconsin lawmakers passed legislation in late July to spend $250 million on the arena, plus tens of millions more on interest. After Walker signed the legislation into law Wednesday morning, he told reporters that the decision was made for the good of the state and that he would not be influenced by those within his own party who oppose it.
“I do what’s right,” Walker said. “When the chips are down, I’m not intimidated by anyone. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on the left or the right or anywhere in between, I’m going to do what I think is right.”