by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
October 29, 2023
Wisconsin lawmakers are considering changes to a deal that would fund renovations and maintenance of American Family Field using $546 million in public money to extend an agreement between the state and the Milwaukee Brewers through 2050.
The Assembly passed bills to fund the deal with bipartisan support last week, but the deal is facing challenges in the Senate where Republicans and Democrats have brought up a number of concerns, including the amount the state contributes.
State leaders and Brewers representatives told the Senate Government Operations committee on Wednesday that it reaching a final deal is urgent.
Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville), who has led the construction of the deal, said it’s unlikely the state can meet its current contractual obligations through 2030, and its possible that the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, the state agency that owns and leases the stadium, could go into default as soon as in the next two years.
Throughout negotiations, Brooks and other supporters of the deal have said that the team could soon leave the state if a deal isn’t reached. Major League Baseball teams don’t often commit to moving but often talk about the potential to leave when they are seeking public subsidies.
Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Milwaukee Brewers, told lawmakers that the team only wants to find a solution that makes sure the district can meet its obligations and isn’t looking to expand those obligations.
“We want to be here for the next generation. I want to be here. The last thing I want to do is figure out a way to leave. I’m doing everything I can to make sure we’re here,” Schlesinger said. “We’re willing to take the leap of faith that the money being provided in this legislation will get us to 2050.”
Changes to the bill are likely, and Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) told the committee on Wednesday that they strategically left the bill “half-baked” with some open issues, so that they could get buy-in from senators.
“I wanted to leave some of that to you,” Brooks said in response to a question from Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin). “They weren’t issues being driven by [the Assembly], but more by [senators].”
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) told reporters ahead of the hearing that there are not 17 Republican Senate votes for the deal. Republicans currently hold a 22-seat majority in the Senate.
LeMahieu, who supports the current deal, said lawmakers are looking to secure a bigger contribution from the Brewers and decrease contributions from the state.
The current plan would appropriate a total of $411.5 million in funding to the Department of Administration to make payments to the stadium district. The bill would also provide $50 million in funding for short-term loans for the same purpose. The city and county of Milwaukee would contribute a total of $135 million and the Brewers have agreed to contribute $100 million on top of their rent payments.
The money would be used to fund maintenance and renovations, including $25 million to winterize the stadium.
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) told the bill authors, Brooks and Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac), she would like to see lower state contributions.
“There are a lot of private businesses that would love to get a couple hundred million dollars from the state. There are a lot of nonprofits that do great and essential work serving people in this state that would love to get that money,” Roys said. “Every dollar that we’re spending on the Brewers is money that can’t go to any of our other priorities, whether it’s reducing taxes, or funding child, care or anything else.”
Brooks said he thought that a lower state contribution could be achieved by implementing a ticket tax on non-Brewer events.
Brooks said that a ticket tax on Brewers events are a “nonstarter” for the team, but that a ticket tax on other events at the stadium is a possibility. He said the team wants to keep ticket costs low for Brewers fans.
“Do I think we’re going to get a ticket tax for Brewers games?” Brooks said. “No. Because the Brewers have said we would rather pony up with some additional money and they have, to the tune of $100 million.”
The state’s portion of the payments would come from income tax collected from the baseball players. Bradley asked the bill authors about how the state will make its contributions should the state lower its income tax rates in the future.
“Some of us in this room… would like to see a pretty big reduction in the income tax, whether it’s a flat tax or the elimination of the income tax completely,” Bradley said. “How do we sell what’s happening with funding the Brewers stadium if we’re successful in our goals?”
Brooks, who coauthored a recent tax cut proposal, said that he still hopes the state will move towards lowering taxes or adopting a flat tax sometime in the future, but the state’s current political climate won’t allow for it.
“If we were to lower the upper income tax, I believe there’s enough in this bill — depending on how much we lower it — that we can absorb that with the reserves that are built in,” Brooks said. “Now, if we go to where I would like to go, we would backfill that with sales tax.”
The current bill also includes contributions of $67.5 million from the city and county of Milwaukee. Local leaders gave their support to the deal after the initial contribution amount was lowered and a provision reduced the amount the city of Milwaukee pays the state in administrative fees on the city’s new sales tax to help it cover its portion of the payments.
Lawmakers and local officials are now concerned about the district’s governing board, which excludes any representatives from the city and county. Under the current bill the board includes four members appointed by the governor subject to Senate confirmation, two members appointed by the Senate majority leader, two members appointed by the Assembly speaker and one member to represent the team.
Roys said the lack of representation for Milwaukee is a “nonstarter” for her.
Brooks said that the board composition has gone through several iterations, and they are prepared to amend the bill.
“If it’s adding a city and county representative or something, I think we can certainly look at that,” Brooks said. “It was anticipated all along that that’s what it would look like, but I wasn’t about to put it in the bill until I had a commitment on the money.”
Lawmakers have also said they would support requiring a state audit of the stadium district.
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