The Menominee Tribe offered Gov. Scott Walker a mulligan Tuesday that came in the form of a $220 million offer to pay for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, but only if Walker would reconsider his decision on the Menominee’s proposed Hard Rock Hotel and Casino for Kenosha. At first, Walker denied the proposal for the new casino last month. This new offer comes as a saving grace for Walker, who has faced harsh criticism for several aspects of the budget since it was released. It offers an alternative way to pay for an unpopular arena, fund other line items that were cut and boost his presidential aspirations by finding a smart private sector solution to alleviate Wisconsin’s budgetary problems.
First off, Walker’s current Bucks arena proposal is not realistic, and even Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has already expressed concerns. Simply put, the Bucks would need to average a salary of $33 million per year per player by the end of the 30-year plan in order to make the funding scheme work. Bucks players make an average of $4.1 million now. Even with TV contracts coming up and salaries continually increasing, this seems like a phenomenal leap of faith to assume consistent — and rapid — progress.
On the other side of the coin, Walker’s reluctance toward the new casino probably stems from a relationship with Wisconsin’s existing Potawatomi Tribe, which currently operates many casinos in Wisconsin. The state would be obligated to pay the Potawatomi for lost revenue if a competitor opened due to a 2005 agreement, but the Menominee have offered to cover the state’s losses here in addition to the $220 million for the new arena. This offer will not only add $220 million back into state coffers but will also cover any additional losses on top of that. This is as free of money as a governor could hope for.
The University of Wisconsin System currently faces a $300 million cut over two years, and even Republicans are grumbling that the cut is too large. State tax dollars now slated for the Bucks arena could be freed up to restore the majority of the funding to the UW System, allowing Walker to “trim the fat” off the UW to the tune of $80 million while not absolutely eviscerating employment numbers. Outside of the UW, we are borrowing $1 billion — with a b — for road improvements in this budget, and even if the UW cuts remain, the money from the Menominee could go a long way in reducing our future obligations. Either way, it’s free money.
This is a perfect political storm for Walker, and he would be smart to take this deal. He can retain his no-tax-increase pledge, restore funding for education and add needed jobs to the Milwaukee area. He gets a new story for the campaign trail about finding innovative and smart private sector solutions to budget issues, and the state can benefit from not having to pony up tax dollars for a private arena. However, Walker is not really a backtracker and might double down on the strategy of stubborn refusal. He would be foolish to turn down this offer. The Menominee are removing a large potential legislative hurdle by offering Walker free private money to create jobs in an area that desperately needs them.
Walker only wins on this issue if he says yes. He avoids a large legislative battle over the Bucks arena. Kenosha wins new jobs and revenue. The Bucks win a new arena without having to increase their players’ salaries by huge amounts. Taxpayers win by not having their tax dollars going toward a private arena. Walker’s presidential aspirations win by offering a private sector solution to his public sector problem. He can kill so many birds with this $220 million stone that, if he turns down the offer, we can truly say that the last remnants of reason have left the governor’s mansion.
Adam Johnson ([email protected]) is a Master’s candidate at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.