Senate Democrats and Republicans finally found enough common ground to pass a Bucks arena financing bill on Wednesday, clearing what most observers believe will be the biggest hurdle towards building a new multi-purpose arena in downtown Milwaukee. Afterwards, Wisconsin Assembly leaders stated that a vote in the state's lower house could occur within a "few weeks," with the Milwaukee Common Council also required to approve $47 million in city funding. Still, none of the remaining approvals are expected to be quite as challenging as the battle in the Senate, providing arena advocates plenty of reason to celebrate (at least for now).
The 21-10 final vote provided arena advocates a larger margin than most anyone expected, capping off weeks of grassroots advocacy from pro-arena fans and the Save Our Bucks group in particular. Still, the huge final margin didn't mean the day was without its share drama. The two parties spent most of the day in caucus, with Republicans first drafting changes to the original proposal before Democrats -- and eventually Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett -- had their chance to review the final language.
Ultimately, Senate Democrats including Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) won the key concessions they were looking for, including an elimination of a controversial county debt collection provision and the addition of a $2 ticket surcharge that will be split between reductions in overall spending by the state and Wisconsin Center District. Larson, Taylor and other Democratic legislators had previously bemoaned their lack of involvement in the plan negotiated by the Bucks, Abele, Barrett, and state Republicans, though they ultimately managed to pull their own end-around on Abele, a fellow Democrat.
While he also termed the overall package a "net positive," Abele termed the decision to strike the debt collection agreement he had negotiated as "massively irresponsible," pointing the figure at Larson and Senate Democrats for axing that aspect of the deal. A staunch arena advocate, Abele may still be able to reinstate that option with the approval of the county board, county treasurer and clerk of courts or a separate action by the legislature, though it's also clear that Larson and company were intent to wash their hands of it in the final Senate bill.
The big question now is how the county will fund its $4 million annual obligation -- a topic that will no doubt become a major topic of conversation going forward. Meanwhile, Barrett expressed disappointment that all of the ticket surcharge money wasn't going towards WCD debt service, which projects to be the most costly due to a 13-year delay between now and when the WCD's tax revenues will become available to pay it off. Either way, the ticket surcharge as it's currently structured would likely lop an estimated $40 million off state and WCD obligations over the next 20 years, and it could be more if it were raised over time.
Let's rewind via Twitter, shall we?
Meanwhile, @MayorOfMKE unhappy 75% of ticket surcharge lessening WCD share. Wants all of it to go there. 25% going to state under this plan.— A.J. Bayatpour (@AJBayatpour) July 15, 2015
So Senate Dems felt like Abele end-arounded them on original arena negotiations, so they end-around him on legislative side? Good times.— Frank Madden (@brewhoop) July 15, 2015
Just heard applause and got thumbs up outside democrat caucus. I think we have a deal folks. #Bucksarenadeal— JP Cadorin (@jpcadorin) July 15, 2015
Bill changes: $2 surcharge; drop MKE Co debt & city parking changes; add two Dems to arena board; foreclosures changes limited to MKE Co.— Jason Stein (@jasonmdstein) July 15, 2015
Interesting. State Sen Lena Taylor said county could approve using debt collection to pay share, but decision must be made in "light of day"— Mark Kass (@MarkKassMBJ) July 15, 2015
The Petak Paradigm Dead – Long Live the Fans http://t.co/qehlHHsAyR— Save Our Bucks (@SaveOurBucks) July 16, 2015
Among other subplots, the county has yet to officially buy off on the proposed sale of the long-vacant Park East property to the Bucks, though the bigger issue going forward figures to be the aforementioned funding of the county's annual contribution. Via Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal:
The Milwaukee County Board and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele — who rarely agree on anything these days — will need to figure out how to pay the county's $4 million annual contribution. The bill passed by the Senate removed a plan Abele had negotiated that would have covered the costs by transferring county debt-collection efforts to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.
Abele said the Senate bill would create a $4 million annual gap from money the state would withhold for arena payments and blamed Larson for insisting on revamping the county-arena-funding plan.
"Because that's now been eliminated by Senator Larson, we'll have a $4 million per year hole in the county budget and I haven't heard boo about how that's supposed to get filled," Abele said.
Needless to say, there are still real questions to be answered going forward, but none that seem likely to derail a project that will hopefully break ground before the year is over and has at least a fighting chance to be ready for the start of the 2017/18 NBA season -- especially if it's delayed by a possible lockout. So don't assume it will be easy from here on out; a project of this magnitude is anything but simple, even once all the votes have passed. Still, a bipartisan deal was ultimately struck, and for the Bucks, their fans and Wisconsin overall, that is something worth celebrating.