Steven Walters: Three issues get no election-year fixes

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Steven Walters
Monday, March 10, 2014

Three major public policy decisions are unlikely to be made before the Nov. 4 election for governor:

-- The Menominee Tribe's plan for a Kenosha casino.

--Financing of a downtown Milwaukee arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.

--How to pay for future highway and other transportation programs statewide.

Each is worth considering separately.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker recently asked the federal government for a six-month extension, with the clock starting Aug. 23, before he makes an up-or-down decision on the Menominee's $800 million new casino and entertainment complex.

The federal government took several years before approving the casino, Walker told reporters, so what's the hurry?

But Walker's indecision is unusual for a governor who made quick, controversial decisions even before he took office—killing the federal government's offer to pay for high-speed passenger train service between Milwaukee and Madison, for example.

And he was in office only weeks before picking the Act 10 fight that all-but-eliminated collective bargaining for public employees, except firefighters and police officers.

He also quickly said no—and has never reconsidered—another federal offer to cover costs of expanding Medicaid health care coverage for more low-income Wisconsin adults.

Last year, however, Walker not only blew by his own deadlines to make a Kenosha casino decision but also waffled on what had been his three non-negotiable conditions before it could be built: Local support for it, unanimous backing from all Wisconsin tribes and no “net” increase in gaming.

Why would a governor who has prided himself on making tough decisions keep his finger in the air on the Kenosha casino?

Could it be the split in public opinion over that casino? The Jan. 27 Marquette University Law School poll found that 41.9 percent of respondents supported the casino, but 40.7 percent opposed it—results that fell within the poll's margin of error.

Maybe a governor in danger of not being re-elected doesn't want to anger a huge chunk of voters with whatever Kenosha decision he makes.

A second political landmine that won't be defused before Nov. 4 is how to pay for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. The team's National Basketball Association contract requires a new venue when its lease expires in 2017.

In a WisconsinEye interview last week, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett again said multicounty, regional support is the only fair way to pay for a new arena because suburban residents follow and support the team.

But, in a separate WisconsinEye interview, Milwaukee City Council President Michael Murphy said three border counties have passed resolutions saying their residents should not help pay for a new Bucks arena.

Some Racine County leaders even want to withdraw from the multicounty taxing district created in the 1990s that raised their sales tax slightly to help build Miller Park for the Brewers. Barrett said that won't happen, however.

One civic leader in the middle of preliminary talks on how to pay for a new arena, Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, conceded that no funding plan will be made public before Nov. 4.

Nobody—Walker, Barrett, Murphy or Sheehy—wants to be on the list of leaders who failed to help Milwaukee keep the Bucks, despite their worst-in-the-league record.

Which brings us to the third puzzle that will go unsolved until 2015: How to pay for critical future highway and other transportation programs, including expanding Interstate 90 lanes between Beloit, Janesville and Madison.

Murphy estimated two projects in his Milwaukee aldermanic district alone—rebuilding the Zoo freeway and the east-west I-94 ffreeway that runs past Miller Park between cemeteries—are estimated to cost $2.5 billion. To avoid raising taxes and avoid construction delays in these and dozens of other transportation projects statewide, the current state budget borrows about $993 million.

That's more than the $880 million that would be raised if the state raised its 5 percent sales tax to 6 percent.

With the election only eight months away, Walker has finessed the transportation funding issue by telling state Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb to come up with recommendations by January, when the governor elected in November presents the 2015-17 budget.

But there may be one upside to the lack of leadership—for now—on these three problems: It gives voters a chance to demand that candidates say how they would solve them.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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