Wisconsin Governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker will sign a bill Wednesday finalizing his controversial plan to spend $250 million in state, county and city funds — plus tens of millions more in interest and future tax breaks — on a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Walker has characterized the plan to replace the existing 27-year-old NBA arena as beneficial to taxpayers, arguing that the state would lose even more money if they declined to do so. But voices from across the political spectrum are blasting the plan, saying that pouring money into private sports stadiums is a terrible investment, and arguing the team’s Wall Street billionaire owners should shoulder the burden, since they’ll be reaping the profits.
“Government shouldn’t be in the business of financing private sports stadiums,” said the Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin. “The current deal is based on fuzzy math, complicated accounting and millions of taxpayer dollars. Whether it comes from the state, the county, the city or other authority, these are taxpayer dollars.” The Libertarian CATO Institute added: “Any presidential candidate who believes that taxpayer-subsidized stadiums are ‘a good deal’ shouldn’t be anywhere near the federal Treasury.”
The fact that the current Bucks arena is still $20 million in debt only bolsters their arguments.
Originally, Walker attempted to insert the $250 million arena deal into the massive two-year state budget that happened to cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin, among other controversial provisions. But after outcry from both sides of the aisle, it was introduced as a separate bill, which passed after an intense barrage of lobbying.
Now, the generous public financing is raising questions about conflicts of interest.
On the very day that Walker began pushing for taxpayers to foot much of the bill for the new arena, one of the team’s owners donated $150,000 to his super PAC. The investor, Jon Hammes, has donated directly to Walker’s past campaigns, as well, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, and this year, Walker hired him as his national finance co-chairman. Another Bucks owner, Ted Kellner, gave $50,000 to Walker’s Super PAC.
Aides to Walker have denied any pay-for-play connection, noting that other Bucks owners have donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Though the state bill will become law this week, the economically depressed city of Milwaukee has yet to vote on its own portion of the financing. Workers in the city, who were unable to secure provisions in the state bill guaranteeing living wages and local hiring policies at the new arena, will now turn the pressure on both the City Council and the Bucks owners.
“There’s a real chance to make a breakthrough,” Peter Rickman with Milwaukee’s Good Jobs Alliance told ThinkProgress. “No one trusted the state government to take on this critical issue, since we’ve seen an unbroken string of five years of attacks on working class and poor people, unions, and wages. But there are still a wealth of decisions to be made the local level regarding investment in parking and infrastructure, land permits, and the surrounding commercial properties. And when public money is going to be invested in things like these large-scale projects, we need to ask, ‘Is it going to make the good jobs crisis worse, or is it going to make it better? Is it going to only create poverty-wage service sector jobs?’”
Rickman’s coalition is not only calling for an agreement that gives workers at the new stadium a living wage and the right to unionize, they’re pushing for a promise that the jobs will go to the people who live in the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding Milwaukee’s downtown.
“This used to be one of the best places in the country for African Americans families, because of the good union jobs in factors and foundries,” he explained. “Those jobs weren’t always good; workers fought to make them good. But when those jobs disappeared they were largely replaced with low-wage service sector jobs. Our fight right now is to continue the history of turning bad jobs into good jobs.”