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Is it time for Seattle fans to pay attention to the Milwaukee Bucks?

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The political friction in Wisconsin is drawing our attention.

Edited by Kevin Nesgoda and Tiffany Villigan

Marc Lasry and Wes Edens
Marc Lasry and Wes Edens
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The difficult question for us at Sonics Rising is knowing if or ever to post a story about an existing franchise. It appears we have reached a point where our readers should know that we are, indeed, paying attention to the arena efforts in Milwaukee and why we are giving it our attention. They should know why we are now paying any attention at all, but still not expect us to report too much on that situation until the league gives us reason to do so.

Fact is a team does not relocate unless the league says they are. Discussing somebody else's team mostly produces hurt feelings. Bucks fans just don't need the unwanted attention, and nobody needs the friction. Following the Sacramento situation Sonics Rising Managing Editor Kevin Nesgoda established commenting rules to avoid needless conflict and what most often turns out to be fruitless fighting. We do our best to stick to those rules but occasionally have to admit what has our interest and why.

We are taking an increased interest in what is going on in Wisconsin politics because there appears to be a serious gap between what the state is willing to pay and what the city and county are able to pay. The source of the friction appears to go beyond serious budget constraints and deeply into partisan politics. The state has to commit to its portion by the end of their legislative session on June 30th.

Points of political friction in Wisconsin

On November 5th, Rich Kirchen of the Milwaukee Business Journal reported that Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) thought Marc Lasry's welcoming President Obama to Wisconsin and his public support of Scott Walker's Democratic gubernatorial opponent, candidate Mary Burke, was problematic.

Bucks majority owners [Marc] Lasry and Wes Edens are well-known in national Democratic fundraising circles, so it was not surprising when Lasry joined Burke in greeting Obama at the airport Oct. 25.

Vos, who is state Assembly Speaker, says several of his Republican legislative colleagues contacted him after Lasry met Obama to express their concerns that Lasry would openly support Burke, who was spending millions to defeat Walker. The Bucks are seeking public funding for an arena possibly from the Republican-controlled Legislature and Wisconsin's Republican governor.

"If you're looking to people for support, you certainly don't want to poke people in the eye," Vos told the Milwaukee Business Journal Wednesday. …

Despite Vos' displeasure with Lasry, he said he anticipates Walker will consider strategies to support the Bucks.

"I support what we can do to save a business," Vos said.

On November 13th, Patrick Marley and Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Robin Vos thought it was a mistake for Bucks owner Marc Lasry to greet President Barack Obama just before the November elections.

Obama was in town Oct. 28 for a rally at North Division High School on behalf of Democrat Mary Burke. A week later, Republican Gov. Scott Walker beat Burke to win a second term.

Vos said Lasry's appearance "did not make my job easier" in terms of persuading republican legislators to back a possible financial plan to build a new, multipurpose arena in Milwaukee.

"It's a tough sell when you're asking for millions of dollars," Vos said.

Two weeks later on November 24th, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the Bucks plan that owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry had was absolutely doable. Certainly, with $250 million in private money and a variety of politicians stating they are interested in making sure the team stays, there was no reason for us to pay much attention to how they get it done. Even though there was early political friction, Silver's statement was reason enough for us to ignore the situation.

In January, Scott Walker proposed in his state budget that the state commit $220 million as part of their contribution to the arena funding plan.

Mayor Tom Barrett [Democrat] called the governor's announcement a significant step forward to not just creating "a new home for the Milwaukee Bucks but a new entertainment center for southeast Wisconsin."

"It was clear to me he was making the case for the state and the Legislature as to why this is good for the state," Barrett said. "I agree with his analysis."

The mayor said he anticipated being a partner in the final arena plan. When the then-Bradley Center was built, the city agreed to spend nearly $35 million for site assembly, parking structures and other costs. In 2015 dollars, that equals $66 million.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) called the governor's announcement a good starting point. "However, it's important that in order for the state to be a partner in this endeavor, we would expect the city and county to be part of the equation as well. I look forward to discussing the proposal with the Assembly Republican caucus."

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, also described the plan as a good starting point, but said Walker was seeking more money than he expected.

"Why $220 million when the billionaire owners are putting in $150 million?" Nygren asked.

He said he wanted to see what the entire financing package looked like and believed the city and county of Milwaukee should contribute toward the arena.

"I don't see us as a Legislature (providing bonds) without the county and city being involved," he said.

In a statement, David Fladeboe, director of Americans for Prosperity's Wisconsin chapter, said the group feels Walker's plan "would put the state and taxpayers on the hook for future obligations. Funding for sports arenas should not be the responsibility of the state and the hard-working taxpayers of Wisconsin."

It was apparent that Walker's $220 million had already been cut down to $150 million, putting more of the public portion of the plan on county and city. A week later, Scott Walker's budget proposal included the $220 million in state bonding for the arena and $300 million in cuts to the Wisconsin University System. The state is also dealing with a nearly 2 billion dollar budget shortfall.

Between January and March the arena funding talk was punctuated by state republican displeasure at the Democratic mayor's ability to find enough funding for a trolley but not for a Bucks arena. That friction point persists.

On March 31st, Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Bucks, county, and city representatives would meet with the joint budget committee to discuss a plan they could all agree to.

In Madison, legislative leaders, representatives from Gov. Scott Walker's office, Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Chris Abele and Bucks Vice President Bob Cook met in the governor's conference room at the Capitol to get a sense of the complex and controversial road ahead.

The meeting lasted about an hour. Walker did not attend the meeting, but several of his top lieutenants, including chief of staff Eric Schutt, Revenue Secretary Richard Chandler and Scott Neitzel, the new secretary of the Department of Administration, were at the meeting.

"Everyone recognizes there is lots of work that needs to be done in the next two to three weeks," said Patrick Curley, Barrett's chief of staff.

Arena proponents are hoping to have a financing plan in front of the public and the Legislature by the time the Joint Finance Committee begins to review Walker's budget.

"Today's meeting and productive discussion was a good step forward in the process," added Bucks spokesman Jake Suski. "We'll continue to work closely with our state, city and county partners to build on the progress being made."

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said in a statement that he was gratified the city and county had come to Madison "to find a way to partner with the state on a plan for a new Bucks arena. I look forward to working with them to determine the most viable option that's in the best interest of the taxpayers of Wisconsin."

Laurel Patrick, Walker's press spokeswoman, said: "While today's meeting was productive, we are continuing to work toward a solution that strikes the appropriate balance between both state and public support."


They’ve really failed to understand Republican leadership in Madison

At this point, the Republican governor that is running to be the Republican nominee for President, the Bucks co-owner and Democratic fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic mayor are all in agreement that $220 million would get it done. Meanwhile the Republican-controlled state politicians set a ceiling of $150 million, and the Democrats in the minority are trying to make sense of the arena plan while dealing with a massive revenue shortfall. Things have not significantly changed since then, other than time passing and the occasional statement that a plan would emerge soon.

Meanwhile, city leaders say they do not have funding mechanisms available to them unless Republicans authorize a tax increase.

State Rep. John Nygren, Republican, co-chair of the state Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance, stated his position on April 21st.

Currently, the city and county of Milwaukee have committed $50 million, a mere 5% of total costs related to this project. To put that into perspective, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett committed $64 million of city funds to build a 2.5-mile streetcar route, which is 50% of all streetcar costs. If Barrett is willing to front 50% of the costs for a streetcar, but only 5% for an arena in his city, it begs the question: how serious is the mayor about keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee?


On April 23rd, Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times filed a piece detailing what Seattle's options were in getting an NBA franchise and Adam Silver's confidence in the Bucks plan.

Silver reinforced that, adding that despite reports about struggles getting a new Milwaukee arena built, he’s confident the Bucks are staying put.

"We have complete confidence they’re going to get the deal done in Milwaukee,’’ he said, adding he met with owners and community leaders and only "a bit" of negotiating remains.

The next day, on April 24th, political insider JR Ross, WisPolitics.com, said, "The Milwaukee Bucks may be the most politically inept organization I have seen operate in the capital. ... This team has been tone deaf from day one in the capital," referring to owner Marc Lasry’s early and outspoken support of Hillary Clinton, while at the same time asking for an extremely heavy lift from Scott Walker’s republican leadership.

The commissioner still had confidence while political insiders characterized the effort as inept and tone deaf.

Scott Walker has put arena discussions on hold

On May 6th, Don Walker reported that Scott Walker put arena discussions on hold.

Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday that legislative consideration of a financing plan for a new arena in downtown Milwaukee will have to wait until other big-ticket issues such as K-12 school funding and cuts to the University of Wisconsin System are dealt with first.

Walker conceded the revenue numbers complicated efforts to get an arena financing plan. "No doubt about that," he said. He said the "clear sentiment" after talking to legislative leaders is "we want to resolve those big issues first."

This is not a terribly unusual position for a governor to take. Our own experience attempting to get state support from the Washington State Legislature for arena efforts has always taken a back seat to more important things.

The year is up and political insiders report that the Bucks arena funding progress has stalled

Steve Walters, who has covered Wisconsin’s Capitol since 1988 and was Milwaukee Press Club's Journalist of the Year for 2013, on May 15th said this on WISEye.org,

"I hear they are still quite far apart on the Bucks arena package. … A lot of heavy lifting still needed ... It's all about the local money."

Speaking of money, the obvious problem with how his political fundraising has an impact on Wisconsin politicians has not slowed Marc Lasry at all. On May 13th he hosted another major fundraiser for Clinton.

On May 18th, Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the city wants a separate development deal with the Bucks to ensure that the Bucks come through with $500 million in ancillary development, some key political players met for 90 minutes, and the trade unions have joined the discussion.

Hopefully, the Bucks owners didn't oversell the secondary development power of building an arena.

As for finding a financing plan to present to the Legislature's Finance Committee, there is no agreement yet between Republican legislative leaders and negotiators for the city, county and the Bucks.

"The financing ideas seem to change every day," said one source familiar with the talks.

Edens and the ownership group have committed $150 million toward the arena, and former Sen. Herb Kohl has pledged $100 million. The rest is expected to come from state, city and county sources.

Last month, Mayor Tom Barrett [Democrat] said the city would be willing to provide $17 million in infrastructure in or around the arena site just north of the BMO Harris Bradley Center; a city-owned parking ramp at N. 4th St. and W. Highland Blvd. worth $7.4 million; and a $1.1 million city-owned parcel once occupied by the Sydney Hih building in the Park East corridor.

County Executive Chris Abele has not detailed what the county could offer toward the financing package.

As negotiations continue between representatives of the city, county, state and the Milwaukee Bucks over ways to finance a new downtown arena, sources say the city is seeking a separate development agreement with the franchise.

The separate agreement is part of a strategy by the city to ensure the Bucks will live up to statements team officials have made that the proposed $500 million arena could generate an additional $500 million in ancillary development, much of it in the largely vacant Park East corridor.

When the Bucks made public their plans for a $500 million arena that included a large public plaza for events, team officials said the arena could provide a catalytic boost to as much as $500 million in development in the form of new office space, more housing, restaurants, bars and perhaps a hotel. Wes Edens, one of the co-owners of the Bucks, said he planned to personally invest in the development.

Now sources familiar with the ongoing negotiations say the city wants assurances that development will happen in conjunction with a new arena.

Earlier Monday, Building Advantage, which represents more than 20,000 tradespeople and more than 600 union contractors, announced that it was joining the Play it Forward coalition, a group focused on getting a new downtown arena built, as well as other proposed ancillary development nearby.

"We are very excited to partner with the Play it Forward coalition to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee while creating tremendous economic and job growth in our city."

What's next?

In the previous weeks the parties have met and will meet again to discuss a path forward for an arena funding plan. They will meet again, but will not discuss this until higher priority budget items have been resolved. The state needs to know what it is writing into its budget bill, or if the arena funding plan will need to be split off into its own bill, before the end of the session on June 30th.

After June 30th, without a plan, the message from Adam Silver could be quite different. For now, we watch and wait. We would prefer that Milwaukee figures it out, and soon, so we can move forward on our own situation in Seattle.