In 2015, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett promised the Milwaukee Bucks $250 million for a new stadium. This may help explain the deficit now faced by Milwaukee schools.

On Wednesday, roughly 3,000 teachers and public employees in Milwaukee rallied in protest of coming budget cuts amid a $30 million deficit the school system is facing for the coming fiscal year. The Milwaukee school board has proposed raising healthcare premiums and making cuts to the transportation budget as a means of shoring up the deficit. However, teachers are calling for the board to reappropriate money from elsewhere.

“[T]here are consultants that this board of education regularly flies in from out-of-state,” Milwaukee Teachers Education Association vice president Amy Mizialko told local media. “There are millions of dollars that can be re-appropriated to handle the deficit in the short term that do not harm students and do not harm educators.”

However large the $30 million figure may seem, it’s actually a paltry number when compared to the amount of taxpayer dollars the Walker and Barrett administrations committed to the Milwaukee Bucks arena just three years ago. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported in 2015, Gov. Walker and Mayor Barrett committed to allocate $250 million in tax dollars toward the new arena — which is still under construction — over the next 20 years (roughly $12.5 million per year) in exchange for the Bucks’ commitment to Milwaukee.

As expensive as the $250 million commitment is, the sting is worse for public schools, as the generous gift to the Bucks came after Gov. Walker cut $250 million from both the University of Wisconsin system and the K-12 public education budget. Forbes estimates that by the time 2035 rolls around, the $250 million price tag for the Bucks arena will have ballooned to roughly $400 million when accounting for interest.

When analyzing the redistribution of wealth from the public to the billionaire owners of the Bucks (co-owner Marc Lasry is worth an estimated $1.7 billion) from a local standpoint, the current $30 million deficit seems even more unnecessary given the city’s $47 million contribution toward the arena, according to figures from the Milwaukee Business Journal, along with the county’s annual $4 million gift to the billionaires who own the new Bucks arena. The city is also spending $35 million on a parking garage for the new arena, although half of the revenue it will generate — along with all of the revenue for the new arena’s naming rights — will go to the Bucks’ owners, according to the New York Times.

“If I had asked the state government for a $200 million fiber-optic installation to bring Milwaukee into the 21st century, they would have laughed me out of the state capitol,” Milwaukee county supervisor John Weishan told the Times in reference to taxpayers’ subsidizing of the arena.

And yet, despite the generous gifts from Milwaukee and Wisconsin taxpayers, the team’s billionaire owners could still break their lease, sell the team to someone who wants to move the Bucks to a new city, and still pocket a huge profit. Urban Milwaukee’s Pat Small estimated that, assuming every NBA team is worth an average of $1 billion, Marc Lasry could easily sell the team to someone else ten years from now, pay a penalty to the city amounting to roughly $170 million to $200 million for violating his contract, and still make out like a bandit after the sale.

Given the absurd amount of corporate welfare being thrown at billionaire NBA team owners, making students and teachers suffer more cuts due to an entirely avoidable $30 million deficit seems all the more unjust.


Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.

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