Sunday's episode of the HBO comedy news show "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" wrapped up with a pointed discussion of the issue of public funding of professional sports stadiums. The lengthy, detail-rich segment focused on the increasingly bonkers features and amenities at new sporting arenas — many of which, the former "Daily Show" correspondent joked, "look like they were designed by a coked-up Willy Wonka" — and the attendant increasingly bonkers cost of these structures, the majority of which are built using at least some public money, with total taxpayer contributions to the projects running into the tens of billions.
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In attempt to answer the question of why local governments spend so much money subsidizing development initiatives for successful businesses owned by billionaires, Oliver considered several recent and current major public-private partnerships ... including the ongoing saga surrounding the Milwaukee Bucks' attempt to secure $250 million in public funding to build a new arena by 2017, a process that has featured the threat of moving the franchise. Oliver's consideration of the Bucks' situation focused on the team's claims that a new arena would kickstart a statewide economic revitalization:
In the interest of fairness, Mr. Oliver, I should note that the Bucks have come up with a new slogan: "Own the future." I'm guessing that tested better than "Pay for half (or perhaps closer to all) of the future through the issuing of bonds to be paid back in 13 years, with the interest tab racking up over the course of that baker's dozen years and eventually costing you an additional $174 million." That one doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
Oliver didn't use up all his skepticism on the Bucks' claims that the downtown arena project would provide a meaningful injection of additional revenue into surrounding businesses or result in long-term job creation. He reserved some for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's anecdote about learning the true value of the Bucks' brand during a trip to the Far East:
C'mon, John. The people of Milwaukee just want to see their team stay put and get the chance to enjoy what might actually be a pretty good Bucks team next season. Shots at hedge-fund billionaire ownership are one thing, but do we really have to bring Yi Jianlian into this? That's just hurtful!
Amid increasing national attention, the Bucks' arena negotiations continue apace.
Earlier this month, the Republican-led Wisconsin state Legislature left Gov. Scott Walker's proposal for funding the arena project — which included $220 million in state-issued bonds, to be repaid with funds raised from increased "jock taxes" on NBA players in years to come, with the final $30 million covered by the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County — out of the state's budget bill. The legislature passed the budget last week, with "plans to provide public financing for a Milwaukee Bucks arena [remaining] on hold." (Walker's support for hundreds of millions in public funding has rankled fiscal conservatives, whom he's widely expected to court now that he's officially announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.)
While the funding issue remains up in the air, Barrett will discuss the proposal with the public at a town hall meeting on Tuesday and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has reportedly called state senators to report to the capitol on Wednesday for a meeting expected to involve the introduction of, and perhaps a vote on, an arena funding plan. We'll see if the town-hall attendees or the senators' constitutents found themselves inspired by Oliver's closing locker-room speech, complete with its own punchy rallying cry: "Make them pay."
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