Wisconsin Closer to Paying $400M for Bucks Stadium in Debt-Ridden County

by | July 16, 2015

By Jason Stein and Patrick Marley

After two days of backroom talks, state senators struck a bipartisan deal Wednesday and approved $250 million in public subsidies for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

The measure passed 21-10 and goes to the Assembly, which like the Senate is controlled by Republicans. No date has been set for an Assembly vote, but for the first time in months the proposal has momentum.

The plan would preserve Milwaukee's stake in professional basketball but at a cost to state, city and county residents, who in all would pay $400 million when accounting for interest over 20 years.

"This deal has taken a lot of work but the Bucks are big bucks for Wisconsin," said Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), who voted for the plan. "It's not been easy. It's not been pretty. But finally we've all been at the table."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), who worked for months on the deal, said lawmakers outside of southeastern Wisconsin helped make the difference by taking the political risk to support it. He acknowledged they could see the issue raised when they run for re-election.

"There's some outstate legislators who showed a lot of courage today," he said.

"As Milwaukee goes, so goes the state. If we have a class-A city that's struggling, then we as the whole state are struggling."

Building the arena is expected to initially cost $500 million, with half coming from the public and half from owners and former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, the team's former owner.

Before approving the measure, senators adopted a 12-page amendment to the proposal that:

_Dropped a requirement that Milwaukee County turn over its debt collection program to the state, which has more power to recover unpaid property taxes and court fines. Instead the county would see its state aid reduced by $4 million a year to cover its portion of the arena.

The county might be able to make up part of that amount if its elected officials decide on their own that the state can do a better job of collecting on those debts and then turn them over to the state.

_Limited proposed changes to state law dealing with mortgages and home foreclosures to Milwaukee County and gave banks five months after the bill is passed to prepare for the changes. The complicated changes were sought by City of Milwaukee officials to address problems in the city.

_Included a $2 surcharge on all tickets. Now, there is a $1.50 surcharge on tickets $12 and under at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, where the Bucks play. The surcharge on tickets above that is $2.

Under the amended bill, $1.50 of the $2 surcharge would go to the Wisconsin Center District and $0.50 would go to state.

The state's share of the surcharge would give it about $500,000 a year to help cover the $4 million a year it would be required to contribute to the arena.

The center district operates the Wisconsin Center convention facility, Milwaukee Theatre and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panther Arena. Under the legislation, a new board would be in put in charge of those facilities as well as the new Bucks arena and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

_Added a Democratic senator and Assembly representative to that board.

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Bucks President Peter Feigin said that he was "overjoyed" with the Senate vote, but that backers still needed to get the deal through the Assembly and Milwaukee Common Council.

"This is the first major step," he said.

The team opposed the ticket surcharge.

"It's not something that we like, but we're very happy with where we are," he said.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele blasted the change that would drop a plan to pay for the county's portion of the arena through improved collection of debts to the county.

"I think this is disastrous," Abele said, but added later that the package is still a "net positive."

Abele criticized Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) for working to insert the change, which Larson said was necessary to secure his vote for the arena. But Abele said it opens a hole in the county budget that could result in cuts to social services and bus routes.

Abele said Larson's change effectively protects people who aren't paying their property taxes at the expense of people who are.

"We'll have a $4 million hole in the county budget and I haven't heard boo about how to get that filled," Abele said.

Larson and some other Democrats have responded that an arena for billionaire owners shouldn't be funded by people who haven't been able to pay their debts. He said Abele and other county officials will have to find a different way to contribute to the arena but said it's still possible that the state might take over Milwaukee County debts if county officials agree.

Abele said he would likely turn the debt he controls over to the state, but that most county debt is the responsibility of County Treasurer David Cullen and Clerk of Courts John Barrett.

Barrett said he might be able to support handing over his share of the debt, but "the devil is in the details." Cullen could not be reached for comment.

Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) said in a statement he holds season tickets to the Bucks but couldn't vote for the package because it was put together without enough public input and "the burden of paying for the construction of the new arena should fall on those who would benefit from its construction."

Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) voted against the deal and noted Lambeau Field was renovated for the Green Bay Packers using an increase in the sales tax in Brown County that local voters approved.

"I think it is incredibly unfair that my constituents in Northeastern Wisconsin are being asked to pay for a sports arena in Milwaukee," he said in a statement.

The vote on the deal comes as Gov. Scott Walker spends the week traveling the country to campaign for president. Walker has said keeping the books in Wisconsin is essential.

Republicans control the Assembly 63-36, but have said they need as many as 15 Democratic votes to get the package through that house. Backers of the arena saw the 21-10 margin for the proposal in the Senate as helping to build momentum in the Assembly.

Leaders from both parties in the Assembly issued a statement saying they want a bipartisan debate on the issue and expect to vote on the legislation "in the next few weeks." The statement _ issued by Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) and others _ said changes to the package were possible.

If the Assembly makes changes to the measure, it will have to return to the Senate, but Fitzgerald said he was confident the two houses could work out an agreement.

(c)2015 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel