Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Crunch Time for Bucks Arena Deal

Joint Finance Committee needs nine of 16 members to approve it. That could be tough.

By - Jun 15th, 2015 11:45 am
Arena Rendering.

Arena Rendering.

The rule must be written somewhere: Every 20 years, the Capitol must have a wrenching fight over whether – and how – to keep a Milwaukee professional sports team.

They are the most emotional Capitol dramas, because the issue – using tax funds to help millionaire players and the team’s rich owners – is so easily understood by taxpayers, sports fans and voters. It’s the most radioactive vote an elected official can cast: Nobody wants to the blamed if a team leaves, but a vote to subsidize pro sports can easily be turned into a 30-second attack ad in your next election.

In 1995, the fight was over state help – and a higher regional sales tax – to build Miller Park for the Brewers. The 52-47 Assembly vote for the package came at 1:27 a.m. on Sept. 28; the final 17-16 Senate vote for the deal reversed earlier decisions and was cast at 4:54 a.m. on Oct. 5. That vote cost one GOP senator his job, flipping Senate control to Democrats.

In all, 26 of the 69 votes for the Miller Park tax-and-build package came from Milwaukee-area legislators, including Sen. George Petak, of Racine, who was recalled for his vote. Of the 26 Milwaukee-area legislators who voted for the Miller Park deal, 12 were Democrats and 14 – including then-Rep. Scott Walker – were Republicans. Eight Milwaukee-area legislators – including then Rep. Mary Lazich, who is now Senate president – voted against it.

Now, consider this year’s drama: Gov. Walker and Republican legislative leaders are counting votes for a $250-million public aid package to pay half the costs of a $500-million downtown Milwaukee Bucks arena. If there is no new arena by 2017, elected officials warn, the NBA will buy the team and move it. This issue, too, may force overtime in the Capitol to get it settled.

But there are is one big difference between the Miller Park deal and the Bucks arena funding fight that will play out in the next two weeks. Miller Park, and the five-county sales tax surtax that is still paying for it, was approved as a one-issue bill in 1995. This year, the Bucks arena deal stands the best – and probably only – chance of becoming law if it’s added to the $74-billion two-year state budget.

There are two ways to add the Bucks arena to the budget: A vote of the Joint Finance Committee, or as an amendment while the full Senate or Assembly debates the budget. Nine of the 16 members of the Joint Finance Committee must vote to add the Bucks arena deal to the committee’s version of the budget. If that happens, it raises the odds that the deal will be approved, since it would take a majority vote of either Assembly or Senate to remove it.

“Yes” votes from the Finance Committee’s cochairs, Republicans Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren, and from the only Milwaukee legislator on the panel, Democratric Sen. Lena Taylor, lowers that must-have number from nine to six.

Two other legislators on Joint Finance are from metropolitan Milwaukee – Sen. Leah Vukmir, of Wauwatosa, and Rep. Dale Kooyenga, of Brookfield. How will they vote on adding the Bucks arena funding package to the budget?

Two other Finance Committee senators – Republicans Sheila Harsdorf, of River Falls, and Luther Olsen, of Ripon, voted for the Miller Park deal in 1995 as Assembly members. But both are up for re-election next year. And, because it borders Minnesota, Harsdorf’s district has more Timberwolves than Bucks fans.

Three Assembly Republicans – Reps. Amy Loudenbeck, of Clinton; Michael Schraa, of Oshkosh, and Mary Czaja, of Irma – were appointed to the Finance Committee by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who wants the Bucks deal to become law. If Vos personally asks for their help, do they agree? After all, legislators from western and northern Wisconsin say there is little or no support for the Bucks deal among voters back home. A Marquette University Law School poll showed that outside Milwaukee and Madison, respondents opposed the arena deal by 86 percent to 10 percent.

Milwaukee-area Democrats would like to have it both ways. They want the Bucks arena funding deal to become law. But they will never vote for the Republicans’ budget, saying it fails to fund public schools and will devastate the UW System by cutting its state aid by $250 million over two years.

One other factor: Of the three best known Wisconsin pro teams – Packers, Brewers and Bucks – where do the Bucks rank? You make the call.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the non-profit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

Arena Renderings

2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Crunch Time for Bucks Arena Deal”

  1. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Walters is right for once.

  2. blurondo says:

    The owners could build everything that they envision without one dollar of public funding and still be well off. There is no need for the ultra-rich to be receiving taxpayer money. That’s just the way they insist on doing business.

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