Thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) far-right vision and national ambitions, Wisconsin is already home to some of the nation’s most contentious and divisive political fights. But just off the beaten path, a new debate is taking shape that has nothing to do with the culture war, taxes, or health care.
It has everything to do with a basketball arena.
As sports fans know, the general outline of the story is all too familiar: a sports franchise wants an expensive new venue; it wants taxpayers to pick up the tab; and the team’s owners have made clear that without a new home, they’ll abandon the community and move the team elsewhere.
That’s exactly what’s happening in Wisconsin, where the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks want out of the Bradley Center, which opened way back in 1988, and also want a new half-billion-dollar arena. Walker thinks that’s a great idea – and has a plan to offer $250 million in public funds to prevent the Bucks from moving elsewhere. (The cost would be spread out over several years, and include the sale of public land.)
The Huffington Post’s Travis Waldron reported last night that even the governor’s allies are not on board.
[H]is plan has already drawn criticism from Republican-friendly groups who oppose the idea of handing millions of dollars in public money to private entities. The libertarian Cato Institute and conservative blog RedState have editorialized against it. Even Americans For Prosperity-Wisconsin, a wing of the Koch brothers-backed group that Walker has courted in his run-up to a presidential bid, issued a statement this week opposing the final deal.Some Wisconsin Republicans have similar qualms. “Let’s put it this way: I’m scrutinizing this plan to an extreme level,” state Rep. David Murphy (R) told The Huffington Post. “The Bucks staying in Wisconsin would be very good for this state. But I do have a philosophical objection to seeing taxpayer money go to millionaire basketball players and billionaire team owners.”
For Walker, it would cost the state too much to lose the team and the economic impact of the new arena would be significant.
The Republican governor just hasn’t persuaded many with his case. College of Holy Cross sports economist Victor Matheson told the Huffington Post, “It’s the same old story” of “regular sports extortion.”
Indeed, the economic impact of new venues tends to be wildly exaggerated. It’s led some Democrats at the federal level to propose ending “the issuance of tax-free government bonds for professional sports facilities” altogether.
Even in Wisconsin, Travis Waldron’s report added that Walker assumes that if the Bucks leave, it would cost the state $419 million – but that fails to note that the existing facility would still be home to other teams and events.
But at least for now, the debate in Wisconsin continues, as the governor tries to rally support for his dubious plan.