Scott Walker preaches the penny-pinching virtues of a grandmother who told him, “Scott, don’t spend money you don’t have.”
“It’s a lesson that I apply every day as governor of Wisconsin,” he wrote in a 2013 autobiography.
No, he doesn’t, say opponents of his plan to have taxpayers pay half the cost of a $500 million arena for the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks. Coupled with a proposal to borrow $1.3 billion for transportation, the arena plan challenges the all-but-announced Republican presidential candidate’s carefully crafted image as Eleanor Fitch’s frugal grandson.
Borrowing to keep the team in Milwaukee has drawn opprobrium even from allies and stands at odds with Walker’s declarations in support of fiscal prudence and protecting taxpayers from long-term debt.
“It’s time to start paying our bills today so our kids are not stuck with even bigger bills tomorrow,” the 47-year-old governor said in his 2011 State of the State address.
Walker, who is expected to join the race in about two weeks, says the state would lose more than $400 million in revenue if the Bucks leave, as they have threatened unless a new home court is built. He said pitching in for a new arena is a “good deal.”
The plan, which Walker originally proposed in January and then revised last month to put more of the burden on taxpayers, has drawn fire from the Republican-controlled legislature and Walker’s conservative base.
Among the critics are Americans for Prosperity, a group underwritten by Charles and David Koch, who have financially supported Walker’s election campaigns. So did the conservative MacIver Institute, a Madison free-market think tank that’s endorsed most of Walker’s agenda since he came into office in 2011.
The libertarian Cato Institute, based in Washington, says the governor is defending “corporate welfare” on behalf of the NBA.
“Any presidential candidate who believes that taxpayer- subsidized stadiums are a ‘good deal’ shouldn’t be anywhere near the federal treasury,” wrote Executive Vice President David Boaz in a June 8 column.
Laurel Patrick, Walker’s press secretary, said the proposal “protects Wisconsin’s taxpayers while balancing state and local support.”
“If a new arena is not constructed by 2017, the Bucks will leave the state,” Patrick said in an e-mail today.
In a statement from his office Monday, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the proposal would keep an “important economic engine” in Milwaukee.
Arguments over taxpayer funding for arenas and stadiums are decades old, and often end with state and local governments caving in to pressure from team owners. Since the 1980s, states and cities have sold more than $9 billion of debt to finance professional sports facilities.
In Missouri, the future of a proposed $985 million stadium for the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams might hang on a pending court challenge to an ordinance requiring a public vote before tax dollars can be spent on the facility. Just as the Bucks say they are prepared to leave Wisconsin, the Rams, who fled Los Angeles 20 years ago, say they could return to California.
In San Diego, which just a decade ago was considering bankruptcy, politicians are examining the sale of municipal bonds in a football-stadium bidding war to keep the NFL’s Chargers. Minnesota’s Democratic legislature approved $468 million in bonds in 2014 to help finance a new $975 million stadium for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
The Bucks currently play in the 27-year-old BMO Harris Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee. Standing behind a lectern with a sign that read “Cheaper to Keep Them,” Walker said June 4 that the state would lose money if the team left.
“The price of doing nothing is not zero. It’s $419 million,” the governor said.
The debt in Walker’s proposed budget is less than half that of his predecessor’s last spending plan and is the lowest level in a decade, according to Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Wisconsin has about $10 billion in tax-supported debt, 15th among states and the 13th-highest per capita, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
State voters opposed further borrowing for the arena in an April poll conducted by the Marquette Law School. Seventy-nine percent said no to an earlier version of the plan that called for $150 million in taxpayer money, $100 million less than the current plan.
The borrowing proposals are part of the legislative budget logjam in Madison, the state capital. The next fiscal year begins Wednesday and a spending plan hasn’t been approved.
The $250 million in taxpayer-funded borrowing would include $55 million in state bonds; $47 million from the city of Milwaukee; $55 million in bonds from Milwaukee County and $93 million in bonds from Wisconsin Center District. Spread out over 20 years, the borrowing would total about $377 million, according to a report issued Monday by the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Earlier legislatures approved taxpayer funding for stadiums housing Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers and the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers. Precedent, though, doesn’t mollify critics.
“My small city of 15,000 raised $15 million to replace our hospital,” Republican Representative Dean Knudson of Hudson wrote on the conservative website, RightWisconsin.com.
“I am certain Milwaukee can raise $75 million in donations for this new entertainment complex to replace the state funding.”