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Local Coalition Opposes 'Jock Tax' to Fund New Bucks Arena

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

A Milwaukee-based community organization is speaking out against the use of a so-called "jock tax" that could, potentially, foot part of the bill for a new downtown basketball arena.

The group, Common Ground, is already on the record as opposing public financing in general for such an arena. The NBA and the Milwaukee Bucks say a revamped or entirely new facility is needed to house the team, and if one is not built by 2017, the team is at risk of moving to another city.

The team's current owners have pledged as much as $100 million of their own money towards an arena, with another $100 million pledged by former owner Herb Kohl. Construction of a new arena is estimated to cost between $400 and $500 million. How to raise the rest of that cost has been the subject of intense debate, as team officials are hoping to have a concrete plan developed by year's end.

One recent idea that has sparked interest is a "jock tax," in which the income taxes of NBA players in Milwaukee would be, in essence, earmarked to repay approximately $150 million in general obligation debt over 20 years.

Advocates say that plan would shield average taxpayers from the burden.  

That doesn't sway opponents. "From that perspective," Common Ground's lead organizer Keisha Krumm says, "that argument misses the mark.  

"When you look at income taxes, this is existing money that goes into our state budget that funds education, Medicaid for poor people, and other services has to provide," she says. "And so when you [call it] a 'benign tax,' we don't think it's a benign tax."

Advocates concede that while those funds would be directed away from other state programs, but say it is money that would be lost if the team were to move to another state.

But Krumm thinks another source could be tapped further - the Bucks' three billionaire owners. "If they would pay for the arena themselves and float their own bonds, we would actually have a win-win-win for the city, for the state, and for the Bucks," she says. "We keep the team, we keep the income, and that money actually can actually stay in the state coffers."

Common Ground, which was not invited to be a member of the local task force set up to create an arena funding proposal, came out against public funding several months ago. They are instead calling for public money to be spent on improving school athletic facilities, parks, and playgrounds, an initiative called Fair Play.

"Why should we use public taxpayer dollars to help build a stadium or arena for the Bucks to play basketball when there are needs in the community? " asks Fair Play co-chair Lloyd Johnson. "We surveyed the different playground facilities, and they are inadequate."

Thus far, Bucks officials have declined to meet with Common Ground organizers to discuss whether there is, in fact, common ground between their goals.

Corrections: The audio interview contained two inaccuracies: Common Ground organizers surveyed 1400 people, not 14,000; and the group helped rehab 50 homes in Sherman Park, not 100.

Editor's note: After our interview was conducted, Common Ground issued a written statement regarding the 'jock tax' proposal, which reads:

The Legislature and the Joint Finance committee will have to vote on new legislation in order to divert the income from NBA player. If the Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee, Governor Walker, Assemblyman Vos and Senator Fitzgerald go along with this idea, it is nothing more than a Republican tax increase on all tax paying citizens in Wisconsin.