Sports

Wisconsin Senate Passes Bucks Arena Deal In Bipartisan Vote

Rendering of the plans for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. 

The state Senate voted 21-10 across partisan lines Wednesday night in favor of a plan that would partially subsidize a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. It included some changes that were added to win needed Democratic votes.

Among the biggest changes added to the bill is a $2 ticket surcharge with 75 percent of the revenue generated going to the Wisconsin Center District, the entity carrying the most financial risk in the Bucks deal. The other 25 percent would go to state government.

Those expecting high political drama left sorely disappointed.  After approving the amendments, lawmakers from both parties took to the Senate floor and lavished the bill with praise. Among them were Milwaukee Democrats, like Sen. Chris Larson.

“They say that nothing unites folks like sports, and I think the vote that we’re about to take proves that,” Larson said.

They were joined by Democrats from other parts of Wisconsin, like Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse.

“This is the most exciting package that we have had in creating jobs,” said Shilling.

Republicans also spoke up, including Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills.

“This project is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Wisconsin,” she said.

In the end, 15 Republicans and 6 Democrats all voted yes for the bill. Afterward, Bucks President Peter Feigin stood outside the Senate chamber smiling and shaking hands.

“This is a project that’s good for the state, so we’re overjoyed at the result,” Feigin said.

The final roll call was unexpectedly lopsided for a plan some observers thought would fail this year, especially after it was taken out of the state budget.  Senators embraced the plan.  Whether the public feels the same way could be another story.

When the Bucks were making their pitch for this deal last week, they played a promotional video for lawmakers that Feigin described as “sexy” and “cool.”  When comedian John Oliver played the same video on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, his audience laughed.

“Settle down, Milwaukee Bucks,” Oliver joked. “For a start, I don’t think Wisconsin will be transformed by one new arena.  And also, if you really are looking to make a tangible change, how about coming up with a better slogan than ‘Fear the Deer.’ Deers aren’t scary, they’re timid forest ponies with sticks on their heads. I fear no deer.”

It’s Oliver’s job to entertain, but polls suggest Wisconsin voters might share his skepticism.  When Marquette University surveyed residents in April about an earlier draft of this Bucks deal, nearly 80 percent were opposed.

And while supporters ruled the day Wednesday, this issue brought together an unlikely coalition of bipartisan opponents. Milwaukee Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter voted no, predicting the bill would prompt a backlash from voters.

“When they actually read the document, they’re going to be very surprised and 21 people will have a lot of explaining to do,” Carpenter said.

Whitewater-area Republican Sen. Steve Nass also voted no and accused the NBA of blackmail.

“It’s either, ‘you cough up the money state of Wisconsin or we’re going to leave,'” he said. “And I don’t think that would occur, near-term.”

Wednesday’s vote also angered one of the Bucks arena’s biggest advocates. Senators got rid of a  provision that would have let Milwaukee County go after uncollected debt to pay for its pay for its share of the arena. County Executive Chris Abele said that change blew a $4 million hole in the county’s budget.

“And you know who’s going to pay that cost? The people who do pay their taxes,” he said.

But Abele stopped short of jumping ship on the deal. He called the change “massively irresponsible,” but he still said getting the arena done was a “great deal.”

The plan still needs to pass the Assembly, where despite vocal objections by some rank-and-file lawmakers, it might be headed for a similar result. Leaders there issued a rare bipartisan statement yesterday saying they were optimistic a vote on the plan will take place in the next few weeks.