Milwaukee Bucks arena rendering (copy)

An aerial view of the plaza of the proposed entertainment district that includes a new Milwaukee Bucks arena. 

Milwaukee Bucks

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Wisconsin Assembly voted overwhelmingly to support publicly financing a new Milwaukee Bucks arena.

The proposal, which cleared the Senate earlier this month on a 21-10 vote, passed the Assembly on Tuesday with a 52-34 margin. Thirty-five Republicans and 17 Democrats voted to support the deal, while 20 Republicans and 14 Democrats voted against it.

The bill now heads to Gov. Scott Walker, who has not yet announced when he will sign it.

"Today’s vote protects taxpayers from the financial impact of losing the Bucks and opens the door to further job creation and economic growth for our state," said Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick in an email. "Gov. Walker thanks members of the Assembly for their bipartisan support of this bill and looks forward to signing it into law."

Walker has championed the proposal along the way, arguing that it's "Cheaper to Keep Them" in Milwaukee.

Many lawmakers employed that logic in their support for the financing package, which puts taxpayers on the hook for $250 million ($400 million after interest) of the arena's $500 million projected cost.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, did not cast a vote, but issued a statement registering her opposition to the deal.

"Although our state should be able to make these types of investments, Republican legislators and Gov. Walker have created another budget mess while balancing massive tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations on the backs of our children and middle income families," Taylor said. "Republicans keep failing to invest in our children and our public education system. In that context, I cannot support millions of state dollars for a sports arena."

Other Madison-area lawmakers were split, demonstrating the mixed opinions of their constituents.

Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, also didn't cast a vote, and Reps. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, and Terese Berceau, D-Madison, both voted no. Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, was a paired aye vote, and Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, voted yes after acknowledging her constituents have "mixed feelings" about the proposal. Rep. Robb Kahl, D-Monona, also voted yes.

Subeck said she has always had a "healthy skepticism" of the promised economic development in public financing deals for sports arenas, but said she believes the Bucks deal will both preserve and create jobs in the Milwaukee area.

"As a state, we cannot afford to lose the tax dollars that would be lost if the Bucks decided to move," Subeck said on the Assembly floor.

The governor included $80 million of state funding over 20 years for the arena as part of his state budget, but the proposal was later removed to be considered separately. 

"Everybody collaborated, everybody worked together. So I actually appreciate the process in a big way," said Bucks president Peter Feigin after the vote.

Feigin had previously told legislators the NBA would buy the team from owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens and move it to Seattle or Las Vegas if ground wasn't broken on a new arena this fall. He said he thinks the team is "heading in the right direction" with the city and county to move forward on construction.

Feigin said the hope is still to break ground in October or November.

"It is cheaper for us to pass this bill than to defeat it and let the team leave," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

Vos and Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, both touted the deal as a good one for Wisconsin taxpayers "no matter where they live," and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said the deal will bring improvements to the city of Milwaukee.

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Still, some lawmakers who believe public dollars shouldn't be used to fund professional sports facilities could not bring themselves to support the deal.

"I am opposed to arena subsidies in general and voted against this plan that had no public hearing, and commits the state to decades of further arena support," said Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson.

The Assembly passed the Senate's version of the bill with no amendments, after roughly an hour of debate. The only members to speak were those who supported the bill.

Several Democrats, including Reps. JoCasta Zamarripa and Christine Sinicki, both of Milwaukee, said they weren't initially sure if they could support the deal. In the context of the state budget, Sinicki said she didn't think she could justify spending millions of taxpayer dollars on an arena. But after studying the deal, she learned those funding streams couldn't be used for areas like education or health care.

Sinicki said the development will create jobs, increase Milwaukee's tax base and attract tourism from neighboring states, not only through sporting events but through other entertainment opportunities.

Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, said the deal is "truly catalytic" for Milwaukee — but Reps. David Bowen and Jonathan Brostoff, both Milwaukee Democrats, voted against it. 

Bowen and Brostoff said they support building a new arena and want the Bucks to stay in Milwaukee, but they couldn't support the price tag for taxpayers. Bowen said he would have voted yes if the deal included an agreement to return half of any naming rights proceeds to the taxpayers, while Brostoff said the deal would be too costly for Milwaukee's most vulnerable citizens. 

Appealing to his colleagues who oppose public subsidies for sports facilities, Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, offered his perspective as an accountant.

"We've reached a point where if we do nothing, we subsidize them to leave," Kooyenga said.

After the vote, Bucks coach Jason Kidd said "there's no better place" to live than Milwaukee, and said he thinks the players are excited to have the opportunity to stay there. He called the deal a "win-win."

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.