A study in contrasts: build an arena, help feed people

CAPITOL NEWSLETTER
Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Gov. Scott Walker is concerned that Wisconsin could lose $419 million over a 20-year period if a new half-billion dollar professional basketball arena is not built in downtown Milwaukee. The National Basketball Association is threating to move the franchise out of Milwaukee.

He is supporting a plan that would eventually cost state taxpayers $80 million to pay off $55 million in bonds for the project. Milwaukee County would match that bonding level and the city of Milwaukee would build a parking structure. Past and current owners of the team would contribute $250 million.

The same day the governor unveiled the arena construction plan, the Hunger Task Force of Wisconsin and two Democratic legislators were urging a reversal of state decisions that led to reductions last fall in the federal food stamp program for Wisconsin recipients.

Reversal of the Walker administration decision would provide an estimated $276 million in food purchases to 255,000 Wisconsin households annually. Unlike the basketball arena project, the increase could be achieved without any cost to state taxpayers through a reallocation of federal dollars provided to the state.

Many of those who had food stamps scaled back last year are seniors and people with disabilities living in subsidized housing, according to Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee. “These vulnerable populations need community to help restore their Food Share benefits,” she added.

In an effort to reduce food stamp costs through the 2014 federal farm bill reauthorization, Congress changed requirements for its so-called “heat and eat” program for 16 participating states. Previously the program allowed low-income households to receive a boost in food stamps if they received at least $1 a month in low-income energy assistance.

The change imposed by Congress required the states to raise the contribution minimum to $20 per household in order for those recipients to continue to receive “heat and eat” food-stamp benefits. The underlying intent was to cut spending on food stamps as states dropped out of the program.

Except for Wisconsin, Michigan and New Jersey, the other participating states ignored the congressional threat and increased their allocation to $20.The Hunger Task Force said those changes have been bipartisan “with both Republican and Democratic governors and legislatures making the necessary changes.”

Walker, who is seeking to be the next president of the United States, declined to support the required increase; subsequently food-stamp aid was reduced for the estimated Wisconsin 225,000 households. The cut amounted to $100 per month for some families.

“A family living in poverty can’t afford a $100 cut in their grocery budget,” said State Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee. Restoring the cut would help many to get back on their feet, he said.

“Making this change is a no-brainer,” said State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, of reversing the Walker administration decision. “Without spending a single extra dollar in state funds, we could bring in $276.3 million more in food stamps and help more than 255,000 Wisconsin households to make ends meet.”

The same sort of slam-dunk confidence was exhibited by Walker as he championed putting state money into a new professional basketball arena.

“It’s not just a good deal,” the governor told a press conference. “It’s a really bad deal if we do nothing.” A podium sign proclaimed it is “Cheaper to Keep Them.”

Walker said the state would lose $419 million in revenues over two decades if the team were moved. Included in the state’s take would be the income tax paid by the millionaire professional basketball players and the wealthy team owners.

Not everyone was buying into Walker’s enthusiasm. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity criticized the plan, urging the GOP-controlled Legislature to reject it.

“The current deal is based on fuzzy math, complicated accounting and millions of taxpayer dollars,” said David Fladeboe, AFP Wisconsin state director.


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