Key to passing a $220 million proposal to build a new Milwaukee Bucks arena is finding a way to engage Wisconsinites who care little about the basketball team, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, suggested in an interview with NBA writer David Aldridge.
A new proposal from the Menominee Tribe and Hard Rock International could succeed in engaging a new faction of Wisconsinites, but could just as easily alienate others.
Representatives of the groups that urged Gov. Scott Walker to build a casino in Kenosha announced Tuesday in Milwaukee that they will offer $220 million for the Bucks arena, in exchange for a reversal of Walker's decision to reject their casino proposal.
Hard Rock International chairman Jim Allen said Tuesday he will put up a $275 million bond to mitigate any potential losses to the state resulting from a lawsuit from the Potawatomi, a competing tribe that has staunchly opposed the Kenosha proposal.
Walker was pressured by conservative groups and other tribes not to accept the Kenosha proposal, which he ultimately rejected. He has said he won't change his mind. At the same time, other conservative groups and Republican lawmakers are reluctant to support state funds being spent on an arena.
"From my perspective, I've always wanted to do everything to keep the team in Milwaukee," Vos told Aldridge on Friday. "But you have to engage the people who never have, never want or never will go to a Bucks game. You have to come up with a plan other than 'wouldn't it be great for the Bucks to stay here?'"
Vos noted that the Bucks don't receive the widespread support in Wisconsin enjoyed by the Packers or the Brewers. While the team is having a surprisingly strong season — something that could generate some support for the proposal — Vos's comments indicated those advocating for the new arena shouldn't rely on the current on-court success.
Under Walker's proposal, the arena would be funded through bonds financed by a so-called "jock tax" on all NBA athletes who play in Wisconsin. The $6.5 million per year brought in by that tax currently flows into the state's general fund.
"It was a way for Walker, a Republican governor with his eye on running for president in 2016, to be able to back a funding mechanism which could keep the Bucks in town that didn't raise anyone's taxes in any way, or use existing state funds," Aldridge wrote. "The study used conservative estimates in the growth of player salaries, even with the likelihood of them growing quicker than expected based on historical models."
He noted that a $24 billion NBA deal with ESPN and Turner is set to take effect in 2016. It's expected to boost players' salaries, which would result in more jock tax revenues.
Menominee chairman Gary Besaw said Tuesday the money Walker wants to bond for the Bucks arena could instead be used to fund things cut in the 2015-17 budget, like the University of Wisconsin System and SeniorCare, if the governor accepts the offer.
"Providing public funding for sports facilities is always a dicey political proposition," Besaw said in a statement. "Our proposal eliminates a big political problem and creates a major advantage to state taxpayers. We want Wisconsin to stay big-league. But we also want to help make sure state taxpayers don’t bear the financial burden of keeping the team."
The tribe has requested a formal meeting with Walker when he returns from a trip to London, a spokesman said.
When Walker rejected the proposal, he said the risk to taxpayers was too great, noting they could be on the hook for up to $100 million as a result of gaming compacts negotiated previously. The Menominee and Hard Rock International believe their new proposal addresses that concern.
But a post published on Right Wisconsin on Tuesday said the offer is likely "dead on arrival." Several anonymous sources quoted in the article said it wasn't a "viable alternative" and suggested if it was a serious offer, it would have been made long before Walker made his decision.
"Today’s latest last-minute proposal from the Menomonee Tribe is a desperate attempt to distract taxpayers from the costly ramifications of a Kenosha Casino," said Brian J. Nemoir, executive director of the anti-gaming expansion group Enough Already! WI in a statement. "The timing of this proposal has the stench of bad politics and the promise of unrecognized dollars should be considered with great skepticism as it’s both coming from a tribe that has had ongoing problems keeping promises and amidst a gaming market that has experienced stagnation and not growth."
Vos, a major proponent of the casino, released a statement shortly after the Menominee proposal was announced.
"I commend the Menominee Tribe for not giving up on creating thousands of jobs in Racine and Kenosha counties. I continue to support the tribe’s efforts to get approval for the Kenosha casino. This proposal is an exciting opportunity and could be a win-win for everyone involved," Vos said. "However, even if you believe this proposal is a game changer, we must come to terms with the real possibility that the governor may never reverse his decision."