WEST ALLIS — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took a break from the presidential campaign trail Wednesday to commit $250 million in taxpayer money to pay for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Calling the new NBA stadium a "dynamic attraction for the entire state of Wisconsin," Walker signed the bill at the Wisconsin State Fair Park surrounded by state lawmakers, local officials and Bucks team president Peter Feigin.
"This is a good deal overall," Walker said before signing the bill, which allayed concerns that the NBA would move the team to Las Vegas or Seattle without a new arena.
Taxpayers will contribute $250 million to the arena over 20 years, although that commitment will grow to $400 million with interest. Current and former team owners will spend another $250 million.
The Bucks issued a statement Wednesday, calling the bill "the culmination of an extraordinary effort from a broad coalition to not only keep the Bucks in Wisconsin, but revitalize Milwaukee." Feigin, beaming after Walker signed the bill, promised the new arena will be a regional tourist attraction.
"The story is about economic development," he said.
Opponents had argued taxpayer money shouldn't go toward building an arena for a privately owned sports franchise. But Walker and supporters said it would cost taxpayers more to lose the team. Had the Bucks left, Walker said, the state would be out at least $6.5 million a year in income taxes that NBA players and staff currently pay. Over 20 years, Walker said that would have grown by another $169 million.
The deal cleared the Republican-controlled Legislature in July with bipartisan support. Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, of Kenosha, stood behind Walker with Republican lawmakers on Wednesday.
"This wasn't Republican or Democrat," Walker said. "This was a good example where people came together, not only across party lines but from all over the state of Wisconsin."
The state taxpayer portion is capped at $80 million over 20 years, a cost that Walker said was more than reasonable to keep the team in the state.
On top of that, about $47 million from the city of Milwaukee will come in the form of a parking structure and tax increment financing. The rest of taxpayers' share will come from bonds, a $4 million annual state payment with a corresponding reduction in Milwaukee County's annual state aid, a $2 ticket surcharge and the extension of Milwaukee city and county taxes on hotel rooms, rental cars, food and beverages.
Walker had originally called for $220 million in state bonds to pay for the arena, but lawmakers balked at borrowing that much. He's also been criticized by some conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, which have called the arena deal a bad one for taxpayers.
"I do what's right," Walker said after the bill signing. "I don't worry about interest groups, whether they be on the right or the left. ... When the chips are down, I'm not intimidated by anyone."
The Bucks have a storied past, thanks to players such as Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ray Allen. But they lack the statewide and national fan base that the Green Bay Packers enjoy and have struggled over the last decade.
However, the team went 41-41 in the 2014-2015 season before losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Chicago Bulls, and Bucks officials tried to parlay that finish into momentum for a new arena.
Feigin said the next step will come in September, when the Milwaukee city council votes on the city's segment of the deal. Assuming that part of the plan is approved, the Bucks hope to break ground in October or November, he said.