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Reader Mailbag: Brewers deal, Milwaukee optimism, WOW shifts, freeway expansion
In these discombobulating times, we're recombobulating together.
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by longtime Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
We put the call out for questions, and you delivered.
So let’s get right to it. READER MAILBAG TIME!
Kevin Alexander (comments section): I’ve read as much as I can find about the Brewers stadium deal, and I’m still lost. I hate the phrase “explain it to me like I’m five,” but well…
I’m specifically curious about why it might (or might not) mean to me as a WI taxpayer, a Dane County resident, and a fan of the team.
The Brewers stadium deal is squarely in the center of the news cycle right now, so let’s start here, and, let’s try this whole “explain it to me like I’m five” scenario.
Let’s say I bought you a LEGO set. And you used that LEGO set to build something great, and a lot of people loved it. But after a while, some of the LEGOs inevitably got lost or broken. So, you came back to ask me for more LEGOs, so you could keep putting something together that people would love. But over time, things changed. LEGO sets weren’t built the same way, everything costs more, and not everyone was sure that buying more LEGOs to build the same set the same way. And maybe your sister needs a new backpack or some cold medicine, and we’re not sure if buying new LEGOs is the right decision right now. Maybe you can use some of the extra pieces for a little while until we find a better way to buy new LEGOs. Or maybe we should just use some extra money from savings to get the LEGOs now so nobody freaks out about the possibility of the LEGOs going away forever.
And that’s probably far too convoluted even for someone much older than a five-year-old, but alas.
At any rate, I think the problem with understanding this deal is in large part because it is so damn confusing. The invented sense of urgency on this deal — with seven years left on the lease, and tens of millions of dollars available to plug any short-term holes — continues to confound. The price tag is startlingly high, and it’s unclear why (beyond the commissioned studies that seemed to seek a certain result). Studying a ticket tax for all Brewers games, realizing it could generate funds to fill a substantial portion of the funding package, and then not including that in amendments, is beyond puzzling.
We’ve already delved into a lot of this complexity.
But to your question. As a Brewers fan, it’s obvious why you’d want the team to stay. As a Dane County resident, you’re probably getting some level of economic benefit from the team being in Milwaukee (and you obviously don’t have to pay any local taxes into the deal). As a Wisconsin taxpayer, though, you might not want the state to be spending north of $10 million per year every year through 2045, which is what the deal calls for. But since the state currently has a $7 billion surplus, and would be losing income and other tax revenue were the team to leave, you might be OK with such a calculation.
Nevertheless, it looks like the final vote on this will be happening next week. The State Senate is the final hurdle, since the governor has said he would sign whatever makes it to his desk. It could be a close vote, and certainly closer than the overwhelming margin it passed with in the Assembly, but I’d still expect for it to pass.
Jeremy Schmidt (email): As a former Milwaukeeean who watches with interest from a distance, I have to ask: what is there to be optimistic about right now in Milwaukee (and Wisconsin at large)?
I don’t say that in a demeaning manner. When so much of the coverage I see of Wisconsin and Milwaukee at large is about the GOP’s chaos, hints as impeaching a Supreme Court justice and overall death grip by way of gerrymandering, I’d love to see a few causes for optimism a browser may not have noticed for the next year that don’t have to do with local sports teams. Or Top Chef, which is maybe all the good news one could ask for.
We can all be optimistic about the Bucks, of course, and happy about “Top Chef” coming to the state. But I also genuinely think this is a moment for optimism in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Yes, really.
For Milwaukee, the city and county are each in better financial positions than they have been in decades — following the passage of Act 12, the shared revenue and local sales tax bill — and can start to seek positions to truly build and grow the city, instead of simply trying to avert fiscal cliffs or other worst case scenarios. County Executive David Crowley and Mayor Cavalier Johnson now have the county and city on a better trajectory than they’ve been on in years, if not decades, and this is going to position Milwaukee to make meaningful changes in the years to come.
Just one example, but take a look at the new “Growing MKE” proposal from the Milwaukee Department of City Development (DCD). This is a fascinating plan that could transform the way housing is built in Milwaukee, modifying the zoning code in a way that would pave a way for real, meaningful change in the city.
For Wisconsin, there’s optimism, too. That death grip of gerrymandering that you speak of — the source of so many of the problems we see in this state — is loosening. The landmark case challenging the state’s legislative maps continues to march forward, and will have oral arguments on Nov. 21. There’s still a very real possibility that every last election for the State Assembly and Senate will be happening under new maps by 2024.
Change doesn’t happen all at once, it happens one step at a time. And Milwaukee and Wisconsin have been taking some very important steps lately. Don’t get discouraged by the nonsense (and come back to Milwaukee already!).
Christopher Hansen, comment: A few specifically for the Northwest side: When the hell is the city finally going to be able to get rid of Northridge?
Also, I am represented by LaKeisha Myers and have been concerned about her recent vote to approve of Vos and redistricting. What is the consensus on her? Reliably Dem or David Clarke Dem?
I love a question about the Northwest side, perhaps the most consistently overlooked part of the Milwaukee metro area. There are so many people who live there, and yet it rarely gets talked about. This is a part of the region that should be much more in focus.
So for Northridge, the saga is getting interesting. It was just reported this week that the city of Milwaukee tried to purchase the abandoned mall under the same terms as prior offers. That would’ve been a fascinating way for the city to be proactive in this type of development.
That report also comes right on the heels of yet another infuriating incident where someone set yet another fire at the abandoned mall, making it the seventh time fire crews have been sent to Northridge in the last 15 months. Milwaukee Fire Department Chief Aaron Lipski has voiced a lot of frustration about this, and rightfully so. This does need to reach a conclusion, and soon.
In response to some critical comments from conservative talk radio, though, Mayor Johnson had an interesting response:
Clearly, the city wants something to be done there. It’s just a matter of it getting done right, and whether that can happen on a timeline sufficient to address the other mounting safety concerns that clearly need addressing.
As for your question on State Rep. Myers, I was concerned about that vote, too, but watched her speech, and thought it was an incredibly important perspective, even if the end result of her not voting against the Vos redistricting bill is a position I disagree with. In that speech she also spoke positively about fellow Milwaukee legislator Lena Taylor, so I think she’d certainly be more aligned with the longtime State Senator than the disgraced former sheriff.
Keenan (comments): Deep dive piece sometime on the JCRAR—how it's set up, what it does, how it came to be, all the ways it sucks, etc?
This is the type of comment you can only get from Recombobulation Area readers — a breakdown on the deeply problematic Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules.
In Wisconsin, we can have the governor govern, the legislature legislate, and JCRAR do a secret third thing where they do whatever they want, skirting any normal checks and balances. It's also a committee stacked with some of the most extreme Republicans. It's really bad (and that’s part of the reason for Gov. Evers’ new lawsuit).
This question is bigger than the Mailbag. I’m filing this away for a longer deep dive, at some point.
Tim Sullivan, comment: I understand the "what" about the WOW counties being as deep red as they have historically been, but I've never really gotten the "why" particularly as it relates to Waukesha. Seems to me it should at the least be a swing county (manufacturing, union presence). I've never really been able to wrap my mind around why it's historically deep-red. For that matter, if it was upper middle-class suburbanites responsible for that, why the suburban shift has happened slower there than such areas around the country.
There are probably some subscribers here who don’t know this, but I am from an ultra-conservative part of Waukesha County. It’s true. I do indeed hail from the belly of the WOW beast, raised Pewaukee schools, Brookfield churches, and a whole lot of baseball fields all over the county. So I have a great many thoughts on this, which could probably fill several columns, if not an entire book.
But I think it primarily comes down to two things: 1) Religious conservatives, who enjoy a tremendously significant presence in the County, and 2) Regional anti-city polarization, fueled in large part by talk radio and conservative media, which is especially influential around here.
This is changing swiftly, as we’ve seen in recent elections, and as I wrote last year, the polarization was so entrenched that it took longer for the suburban shift to happen here than it did in other regions.
An under-explored factor here, I think, is the impact of millennial parents. Millennials are a more educated generation, and in this era of realignment, there are more people with higher levels of educational achievement voting for Democrats. I also think the culture war battles conservatives were fighting in this region on issues like LGBT rights is not going to translate to younger generations.
I could go on and on about this issue, and I will certainly be exploring this more in the year ahead, since it will be such an important one toward determining the winner of statewide races — and therefore the presidency, with Wisconsin being one of the five or six states to determine electoral college victory.
Adam Jussel (email): How likely is the freeway going to be changed from lane expansion?
Very likely. And frankly, I don’t think people are yet processing how much of an inconvenience this is going to be, how unnecessary the lane widening is in the first place, and how long this is going to take. The latest estimate on the timeline from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation puts the end date on construction in 2031. And these things never end on time. Just look at the Zoo Interchange. Scott Walker declared it done in 2018, and construction on the north leg is still happening now, in 2023, five years later.
I think people are going to despise this project once it gets underway, and will be wondering why there wasn’t enough scrutiny on it to begin with.
And to that, I will send people links to The Recombobulation Area’s Milwaukee Press Club Gold award-winning series, “Expanding the Divide.”
Thanks for all the questions! We’ll see you back in your inbox later this week to break down the latest installment of the Marquette University Law School Poll.
Now, go refer a friend to subscribe to The Recombobulation Area, and let’s keep building this thing (and saving you some money in the process).
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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