MADISON — The Wisconsin state Senate approved a significant public financing deal for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena Wednesday after members struck a rare bipartisan agreement to include a ticket surcharge and wipe out a debt collection provision.
The Republican-authored bill would devote $250 million in public dollars to the $500 million project for the NBA team over the next 20 years. The Bucks’ owners would contribute $150 million and former owner Herb Kohl would contribute $100 million.
Bucks President Peter Feigin told the Legislature’s finance committee earlier this month that if construction doesn’t begin this year, the NBA will move the team, possibly to Las Vegas or Seattle. He said he was overjoyed to see the Senate pass the bill.
“It sends a great message to the state of Wisconsin that this project should get done,” he said immediately after the vote. “Everybody’s set up to succeed.”
For a while it didn’t look like the bill was going anywhere. Republicans control the Senate 19-14 but a handful of GOP senators opposed to subsidizing a private sports team weren’t behind the measure. Sen. Steve Nass, a Whitewater Republican issued a statement Wednesday branding the bill a giveaway for the Bucks. Republicans who supported the bill had to turn to minority Democrats for help getting to 17 votes.
Democratic senators met for most of the day Tuesday and most of Wednesday afternoon ironing out what they wanted in the bill. They finally emerged from their meetings late Wednesday afternoon with a number of changes.
One of them calls for a $2 ticket surcharge, with $1.50 going to the arena’s governing district and 50 cents going to the state. The surcharge would increase state revenues by $500,000 and the district’s revenues by $1.5 million, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis.
The original bill called for the state to make an $8 million annual contribution to the project with tax dollars. The state would have offset $4 million of that contribution by taking over collecting past-due debt on Milwaukee County-issued fines, forfeitures and property taxes and pumping the first $4 million of that revenue back into the general fund, with the balance going back to the county.
Democrats balked at that plan, saying it would burden poor people struggling to pay their debt. They erased the provision but allowed language calling for slashing state aid to Milwaukee County by $4 million each year until 2035.
The Senate convened almost immediately after the amendment was drafted. Senators looked exhausted as they took their seats and quickly approved the amendment on a voice vote. Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat, said that she felt like she’d been through an NBA tryout and hoped she’d never have to deal with another arena issue during her legislative career.
But a number of Milwaukee-area senators hailed the deal as a way to keep a key economic engine in the state. According to the state Department of Administration, NBA players pay $6.5 million in income taxes to the state of Wisconsin annually and the Bucks add $130 million to Wisconsin’s economy each year.
“(The deal) keeps Milwaukee on the map. It keeps Wisconsin on the map,” said Sen. Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat. “That’s a huge cultural win for us.”
The Senate adopted the bill on a 21-10 vote after less than an hour of debate. Three Republicans — Nass, Robert Cowles of Green Bay and Jerry Petrowski of Marathon — joined seven Democrats in voting against the measure. It now goes to the state Assembly. Republicans hold a much larger majority in that chamber, 63-36. Republican and Democratic Assembly leaders said in a joint statement they plan to review the bill closely to see if they need to make changes and hope to vote on the proposal in the next few weeks.
Feigin, the Bucks’ president, said he didn’t care for the ticket surcharge but he’s happy with where things stand overall.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, meanwhile, said he was disappointed with the Democrats’ move to erase mandatory state collection of debt.
The state has stronger powers to force payment on past-due debt than the county, he said, and he was hoping the move would generate as much as $6 million for the county. He said he’s also concerned about making up the cut in state aid. He said he’d keep talking to the state about striking a deal on debt collection without a mandate.
“Now it’s going to be a lot harder,” Abele said. “(But) I still strongly believe investing in an arena is a generational opportunity for the county.”