The Wisconsin Senate voted 21-10 to approve $250 million in public financing for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. The bill will now be sent to the state Assembly for approval. Though the Assembly is likely to pass it, there is still some backroom negotiating and deals to be completed beforehand. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has exhaustive detail on the compromises struck to pass the Senate version of the bill.
Just a few days ago, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a state budget that includes cuts of $250 million to the University of Wisconsin system, among other cuts to public education funding. Marc Lasry, a Bucks co-owner, is estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.87 billion, while co-owner Wesley Edens was worth $2.5 billion in 2007 before suffering a downturn (though not so big of one to prevent him from owning an NBA team) in the Great Recession. Together, they will pay just $150 million towards the arena.
Proponents of the arena have cited the hoped for economic development in downtown Milwaukee as a reason to spend so much public money on it. Of course, $250 million could be used to revitalize downtown Milwaukee in plenty of other ways than paying for an arena for billionaires. Besides, the near-unanimous opinion of economists is that arenas and stadiums don’t generate enough money or spur enough job growth to justify public subsidies. Most of the jobs created are temporary construction ones, and arenas simply shift where leisure money is spent—at the arena instead of at a local movie theater or at a restaurant.
The vote came one day after NBA commissioner Adam Silver claimed that a “significant” number of NBA teams were still losing money. It really is quite a brilliant racket. By crying poor the NBA claws back money from the players, and by teams threatening to move—like the Bucks did just a week ago—they blackmail cities into paying for arenas instead of for desperately needed public services.
Stamping out publicly subsidized sports facilities should be easy. Those on the right don’t believe that a limited government has any business spending taxpayer dollars on non-essential services, while those on the left don’t believe in giving billionaires handouts. Instead, politicians of all stripes get bullied by sports leagues, hoodwinked by bogus economic studies, and are more concerned about voters getting angry that their favorite team is leaving than protecting their constituents from money-grubbing billionaires. It’s infuriating.