Scott Walker cuts $250 million from public universities, wants to give it to Milwaukee Bucks

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recently signed a state budget that included $250 million in cuts to the state’s university system. Yesterday, the Wisconsin State Senate voted 21-10 to give $250 million in public financing to the Milwaukee Bucks — to be used to build a new arena for the team. The bill to subsidize the Bucks now heads to the State Assembly.

When accounting for interest, the state will eventually pay $400 million over 20 years under the proposal. On top of their funding for the stadium’s construction, Wisconsin taxpayers will contribute $4 million per year to the arena, for which they will receive $500,000 per year in revenue from a surcharge on ticket sales. The Bucks have opposed the surcharge.

As Deadspin notes, it isn’t as if the Bucks couldn’t afford to build the arena on their own; they fought for and are on the verge of getting $250 million in public funding because they could:

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…

…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.

As John Oliver detailed in a recent segment, Milwaukee isn’t the only team extorting its local government for money it doesn’t need:

Public funding for stadiums is granted under the premise of spurring economic activity, a claim that economists almost unanimously dispute, as, per Deadspin, “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.” As Oliver cites, the city of Milwaukee would likely see a bigger boost in economic activity if they simply dumped 250 million one dollar bills from a helicopter over its downtown area.

The BMO Harris Bradley Center, where the Milwaukee Bucks currently play, via Wikimedia Commons

The BMO Harris Bradley Center, where the Milwaukee Bucks currently play, via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, keeping $250 million in the state’s public university system would be a net-positive for the state in the long run.

Public funding for sports stadiums is one of the few issues in which a constituency that is generally politically apathetic — sports fans — are able to trump strong partisans on both the left and right. As Deadspin pointed out in their story, there is something for liberals and conservatives alike to hate when the government throws money at already-wealthy sports teams: it unnecessarily distorts the market, exacerbates inequality and comes at the expense of necessary public services.

And yet, all a team has to do is threaten to move, and their fans all of a sudden become active democratic citizens, flooding town meetings and writing letters to their representatives warning them that if the team leaves, they will hold those who voted against stadium funding personally responsible.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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