Play ball! Basketball posing taxing tests for Gov. Walker

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Matt Pommer
Sunday, May 4, 2014

The sale of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team will provide a high-profile taxing and leadership test for Gov. Scott Walker.

The key to keeping the team in Milwaukee is construction of a modern stadium with lots of seats. No price estimate has been issued for such a facility, but it could costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

Herb Kohl, the former U.S. senator who owned the team, has pledged $100 million, and the new owners have agreed to contribute another $100 million. But public dollars will be needed for such a huge project, according to Franklyn Gimbel, chairman of the Wisconsin Center District in downtown Milwaukee. But the district already has tens of millions of bonds that won’t be paid off for 18 years.

“There’s a little space to travel until the public buys in to supplement it with some kind of tax,” Gimbel told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Three nearby Republican-dominated counties—Waukesha, Ozaukee and Racine—have indicated they don’t want to help provide any tax money. They are among counties paying an additional 0.1 per cent sales tax to help pay for Miller Park, the baseball stadium that is home to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Gov. Scott Walker doesn’t appear anxious to play an early leadership role. He has other things on his mind: getting re-elected governor and then competing for the Republican nomination for president or vice president in the 2016 election.

The governor said he first wanted to hear from local officials about the basketball situation. Proponents of a new stadium say it would hurt Milwaukee’s image as a “major-league city” if the new owners were to move the Bucks to a different city. It’s Walker’s image that could be affected if he were to champion some sort of tax to pay for a new basketball arena.

A new or expanded tax would need approval of the Legislature and the governor. Walker is ahead in his bid for re-election, and gerrymandering has assured that Republicans will continue to control the next Legislature.

Athletic arenas can be tough issues for politicians. Democratic Gov. Tony Earl lost a bid for a second term in 1986 when he backed the idea of building a state prison near County Stadium, then the home of the Milwaukee Brewers. Owner Bud Selig wanted a new stadium near County Stadium.

In the 1986 election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tommy Thompson ran TV ads showing a prison being dropped onto County Stadium. Nearly a decade later, Thompson led the fight for the five-county sales tax increase to help finance Miller Park.

Thompson says that legislative struggle was the toughest issue he faced in 14 years as governor. Retired Brewers’ heroes such as Henry Arron and Robin Yount came to the state Capitol to sway legislators. The State Ethics Board gave its approval to allow the ex-heroes to sign autographs for the elected officials.

But it was Thompson who provided the political push that led to an all-night session in which the state Senate gave final legislative approval for the sales tax plan. Thompson was not shy about the leadership role he played.

Promoting a local tax for professional basketball will be more difficult than Thompson’s effort for professional baseball. But Wisconsin has several top-flight college teams, including Marquette and UW-Green Bay. The UW-Madison basketball team, which almost got to the national collegiate championship game this year, has captured the hearts of most Wisconsin basketball fans.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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