Bucks Arena Tough Sell for Outstate Legislators
Poll shows state residents outside metro Milwaukee and Madison oppose subsidy by 86% to 10%.
If there’s going to be any state aid to help build a new $500-million arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, it will take support from legislators like Republican Rep. Mary Czaja, whose hometown of Irma in Lincoln County (just north of Wausau) lost 15 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010.
Czaja may only be in her second Assembly term, but she got a seat on the Joint Finance Committee this session partly because of the new sense of purpose and resolve that comes from surviving breast cancer. Twice.
In a WisconsinEye interview, Czaja said the “first thing” residents of her Assembly district told her in listening sessions on the next state budget was not to use their tax money to help build a new arena for a Bucks team they will probably never see play. Irma is almost 220 miles from Milwaukee.
The last Marquette Law School poll showed that most North Woods residents feel that way. Residents polled who didn’t live in cities like Milwaukee and Madison and Green Bay opposed state help for a Bucks arena overwhelmingly – 86 percent to 10 percent said Marquette pollster Charles Franklin.
What Czaja did next in her conversations with constituents is fascinating.
“So then you have a conversation,” Czaja said, explaining – carefully and deliberately – why she may end up supporting state aid of between $120 million and $150 million for a Bucks arena. But her support assumes substantial contributions from both the city and county of Milwaukee.
Czaja’s logic: The state of Wisconsin still owes $20 million on the BMO Harris Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee, which needs an additional $100 million in maintenance. “We’re on the hook for it,” Czaja said.
Whether or not a new Bucks home is built, she added, “We will still be in the arena business. If we don’t do this, we’re going to lose the revenue on the Bucks, and the trickle-down effect of that revenue into Milwaukee. We need a healthy Milwaukee to have a healthy state. That’s reality.”
Also, the $20 million still owed on the Bradley Center is “bonding money – not general-fund money that could be utilized for schools.” Legislators are trying to avoid the $127-million cut in K-12 school aids proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
If her neighbors hear her out, Czaja said that discussion often ends like this: “When you explain it to constituents that way, they’re like, ‘Well, I would rather have the new arena, and the Bucks stay in the revenue, than a $120-million Bradley Center that has no major tenant in it’.”
But state aid for a new Bucks arena remains one of the toughest sells in the Capitol. After all, the package that built Miller Park for the Brewers raised the five county, Greater Milwaukee-area sales tax and prompted the recall of Republican Sen. George Petak, of Racine, after he voted for it in 1995.
When the entire state was measured, the most recent Marquette Law School poll documented opposition – by a margin of 79 percent to 17 percent – to state aid for a new Bucks arena. Even in the City of Milwaukee, the Marquette survey found two-to-one opposition to that state help (66 percent no, 30 percent yes).
Interestingly, Green Bay-area residents questioned by Marquette pollsters had the highest opposition to any state aid for a new Bucks arena – 89% against and only 6% in favor. It was not that long ago that a Brown County-only sales tax increase raised almost $300 million to remodel Lambeau Field for the Packers. The state provided only $9.1 million for infrastructure improvements. Green Bay residents may well feel that given how little help the state gave the revered Packers, none should be forthcoming for Wisconsin’s pro basketball team.
State help for a Bucks arena is so controversial that Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater wants it to be voted on separately, and not as one of thousands of items in the 2015-17 state budget. There’s no assurance it would pass as a stand-alone bill, however.
Franklin said a yes-or-no vote in the Legislature on a Bucks arena aid package “may be tough as a symbolic vote,” but no individual taxpayer would notice it. Help for the Bucks would be a “tiny fraction of their overall tax burden.”