Sports and politics are far from mutually exclusive.
Wisconsin citizens were dutifully reminded of that reality during the second gubernatorial debate between Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke last Friday, Oct. 17. Amid the familiar questions about job growth and the economy, the Milwaukee Bucks abruptly entered the discussion. Ted Perry, a Fox6 news anchor, asked the candidates whether they would offer their support for publicly financing a new arena in Milwaukee.
Below is a full transcript of the discussion:
(See above or click here for a video clip of the arena discussion via C-Span.)
Ted Perry, Fox6 news anchor: “Good evening to you both.
“Sadly, it’s not being used this fall due to an epic collapse by the Milwaukee Brewers — something that isn’t blamed on either one of you, by the way — but Miller Park is here. And it would not be here without the public support and behind-the-scenes persistence of then-Governor Tommy Thompson.
“It’s very likely whichever one of you wins next month will have to deal with an arena issue for the Milwaukee Bucks — who, according to new reports, could be Seattle-bound if a new facility isn’t built. Unlike the casino project, there really is a shot clock here.
“So can you, tonight, declare whether you’ll use your political clout and capital, a la Tommy Thompson, to allow public funding for a new arena, or will you pledge to block the use of any state tax dollars needed to build the project? And I believe, governor, it’s your turn to inbound the ball here.”
Scott Walker: “Thank you. Good metaphor.
“No, I think it’s an important issue. I mean, I’ve got two sons here who love going down to see Bucks games — but not just for them, but for people all across the state. Not just here in Milwaukee; this is a state asset. Quality of life involves a whole series of things, and part of it are attractions like this.
“What I have said in the past, and I’ll repeat here again tonight, is I do not support a sales tax or another new tax, as has been talked about in the past for other projects, for this particular project. What I do think, though, we should look at is, ‘What is the actual value — I don’t mean the theoretical value — what is the Milwaukee Bucks as a team actually bringing to the state of Wisconsin in terms of revenues to the state that we would otherwise lose?’ Because I think that you’re right — it’s pretty clear the NBA has said by 2017, if they’re not up and going here, they’re going somewhere else, whether it’s Seattle or anywhere else out there. And we don’t want that.
“So part of our goal is to try and assess, and we’ve been working on this over the past few months, what is the actual amount the Milwaukee Bucks and their players — because remember, the players, not only the Bucks, but any of the visiting players are taxed on a prorated basis every time they play a game here in the state of Wisconsin — what is the actual dollar amount, and therefore what would we lose? And I think that is a legitimate basis upon which to begin any discussion with members of the legislature and public.”
Mary Burke: “Well, I grew up in Hartland, not too far away. And I certainly remember watching the Bucks when they won that NBA championship in 1971. So I know the glory that we can see as a community here from having a thriving NBA franchise.
“As I mentioned previously, what we’ve seen right now is that Milwaukee County has not come back from the recession. Six more years until we get to pre-recession employment. And so, we have to look at what investments are needed in order to have a thriving Milwaukee economy. That represents a lot not only to Milwaukee, but the other communities around it and certainly to the state.
“I know from my experience at Trek Bicycle sometimes you have to make investments in order to grow. The public option should be on the table, but it should be the last one. And we have to protect the tax payers here. But we also have to understand the impact it has on the community — not only the direct impact, but the indirect impact on Milwaukee. Because we have to make sure that Milwaukee is a thriving community, that we are growing jobs, that we’re able to attract and keep young people in our communities — and it is things like sports teams, cultural institutions that play a large role in that.
“So I’m going to look at this from a business perspective: ‘What is the impact of that team overall on the community? How can we bring people together in public-private partnership to make this happen while protecting the tax payer?'”
Walker: “Again, I love Milwaukee. My kids were born at St. Joseph’s here. I’ve got one son who goes to school here; I’ve got another one who goes to school over in Madison. But I love this community; I love this state. And I want to make sure my sons and other sons and daughters like them, their age and those to come, want to stay here. And part of it is quality of life, which is not just the Bucks — it’s everything else here in Milwaukee and all the other great assets we have across the state.
“But I want to make sure that we do so in a responsible way. The ‘tax and spend’ policies we saw in place before I came to office are largely responsible for the jobs we lost in the past. I don’t want to repeat those mistakes in the future.”
Burke: “This is an important decision for Milwaukee. I applaud Senator Kohl and the new owners, along with additional community leaders that are putting more resources into this. So we have to recognize that there is going to be a lot of private investment that is going to be behind this. So as governor, I’m going to look at how we make this happen. Again, need to protect the tax payers. But a lot is riding on the line here, and I’m going to take a leadership position to make this happen.”
Much of what Walker and Burke said about the Bucks arena situation during the debate was already public knowledge.
Walker has consistently said that he would not support a new tax to fund an arena unless there was sufficient support from taxpayers — which local polls consistently suggest will not happen in the foreseeable future. If anything, Walker went a predictable step further Friday, saying, ” I do not support a sales tax or another new tax.”
Meanwhile, Burke has said in the past that public financing is a “last resort” for the arena project.
Their guarded language also isn’t a surprise. Public financing for sports facilities is a hot-button issue with few ideal solutions. It’s often a no-win situation for politicians: You don’t want to be the politician who let a professional sports team get away, but you don’t want to draw the ire of taxpayers.
Ask former state Sen. George Petak, R-Racine, who was swiftly recalled from office after voting for 0.1 percent sales tax to fund Miller Park. Petak, who turned out to be the swing vote, had previously said he was going to vote against the measure. He was the first Wisconsin politician to be successfully recalled. Despite much earlier predictions, the Miller Park tax, which started in 1996, is now estimated to sunset between 2018 and 2020.
Walker and Burke both followed a safe blueprint to address the question: Preface that you love the team, acknowledge that it’s an asset to the community, and then conclude that public financing is not preferred.
They both largely defaulted to generalities — leading with anecdotes, citing the team’s affect on quality of life, and noting its impact on the community. However, Walker also stressed the importance of calculating the tangible value of the franchise to the area. A major gauge, according to Walker, is the the Wisconsin state income tax collected from home and visiting NBA players, known as the “jock tax.” Walker had already floated around that potential source of funding over the summer.
Former Bucks owner Herb Kohl and new majority owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens have already vowed to contribute a combined $200 million to the new arena. And after adding a bevy of other owners and investors, it’s possible more private money could be contributed to the project.
Nevertheless, by most estimates, a state-of-the-art facility in Milwaukee will cost between $400 million to $500 million. Despite those significant pledges of private investment — to which Burke alluded — it’s widely expected that there will still be a significant need for public financing to round out the project.
The “jock tax,” which Bucksketball.com explored in detail over the summer, is certainly one option, and it increasingly appears it could be one of the few public financing options to have Walker’s support.
In essence, the “jock tax” is the income tax that Wisconsin already collects from Bucks players (who reside in Wisconsin for at least the season) and visiting NBA player (whose income earned while staying in Wisconsin is taxed on a prorated basis). It’s possible the state Legislature could divert that money from general funds to the arena project directly, but it’s not clear how much of the public burden that would alleviate.
Timothy Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and a leading advocate for a new facility, told the Milwaukee Business Journal that NBA players are contributing roughly $10 million per year to the state in income taxes, and that the revenue could reasonably add up to $100 million in public funding for an arena.
Finally, it’s hard to draw many conclusions from a debate segment filled with empty rhetoric, but Burke seemed slightly more committed to seeing the arena project through, concluding, “I’m going to take a leadership position to make this happen.”
This much is certain: Whichever candidate is elected will be a significant player in the arena discussion. As Perry referenced in his question to the candidates, former Gov. Tommy Thompson was heavily involved in negotiating with then-Brewers owner Bud Selig during the process of securing public financing for Miller Park.
The midterm election is Nov. 4.