GOP lawmakers propose spending $600 million in public funds on Brewers stadium

Gov. Evers and Democrats say they look forward to more conversations

By: - September 19, 2023 5:45 am
Milwaukee Brewers stadium

The Milwaukee Brewers stadium, American Family Field. (Rich Rovito | Special to the Wisconsin Examiner)

A plan Republicans announced to spend $600 million in state and local money on renovations and upkeep at American Family Field and keep the Brewers in Milwaukee through 2050 got a cool reception Monday from Gov. Tony Evers and others whose support will be needed for the deal to pass.

Announcing the GOP plan at a Monday morning press conference at American Family Field, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said that it is “good for the taxpayers. It’s good for the state and it’s good for the team.” 

Evers, Democratic state lawmakers and Milwaukee leaders had mixed reactions to details of the plan, due in part to the local contribution that it would require.

“Gov. Evers looks forward to reviewing Republicans’ proposal and continuing conversations on a plan that provides additional flexibility and minimizes harm for local partners while ensuring we keep this important economic driver and thousands of jobs in our state,” Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback said in a statement on Monday.

Cudaback contrasted the proposal with one that Evers had advanced as part of his proposed state budget in February. 

“While it’s good to hear Republicans are getting serious about keeping Major League Baseball in Wisconsin, it’s unfortunate Republicans rejected Gov. Evers’ commonsense proposal that ultimately would’ve saved taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run,” she said.

The draft legislation — co-authored by Rep. Rob Brooks (R-Saukville) and Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac) — includes contributions of about $400 million from the state, $200 million from the city and county of Milwaukee and $100 million from the Brewers. 

Brooks said that negotiations on the bill started after Evers announced his proposal, which would have tapped into the state’s budget surplus to provide $290 million to keep the Brewers through 2043. 

The Republicans’ plan would add 20 years to the team’s lease on the park, which currently expires in 2030. Brooks and Vos said that a new deal needs to happen now because the stadium district fund, which was estimated at $70 million, only has about $10 or $15 million. 

Vos said the deal would fulfill the state’s contractual obligations to do upkeep on the stadium. American Family Field is owned by the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, a state agency that leases the stadium to the Brewers. He added that since Wisconsin owns the stadium, “if the Brewers leave, we will continue to own these facilities, the taxpayers are on the hook whether we like it or not,” and that it is a better deal for the stadium to continue to generate revenue from having the team in the city. 

Vos also said that the deal is a “very similar model” to the one used when negotiating a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2015. That deal, which required bipartisan support to get it across the finish line, included $250 million in contributions from the state, city and county of Milwaukee. 

Under the deal proposed by Republican lawmakers, the state would provide $386.5 million for the improvement, repair or maintenance of American Family Field and an additional $25 million to be used to winterize the stadium for concerts and other events during the winter. That money would come from the state income tax collected from the baseball players. 

“Our deal raises no taxes. It’s cheaper to keep them,” Brooks said, referencing the same slogan former Gov. Scott Walker used in 2015 while negotiating the deal for the Milwaukee Bucks. Professional teams rarely relocate, but a recent example, the Oakland Athletics, has been used as an example of what could happen in Wisconsin if no deal is reached on the Brewers.

“Our annual investment from the state is tied directly to a portion of player personnel, both the home team and visiting team,” Brooks said. “If you don’t play second base for the Brewers or the Cubs or the Yankees, your income taxes are not going to this deal.” 

An LFB memo notes, however, that if the Legislature were to enact significant reductions to the income tax over the following 27 years, income taxes attributable to MLB-related personnel would be lower than the estimated amounts. A major goal of Republican lawmakers in recent years has been to lower the state’s income tax, including the rate for the state’s top earners. 

“Here’s what bugs me — the idea that income taxes will cover things. Well does that mean we are done trying to flatten or zero out the income tax? Because otherwise this deal falls apart,” Matt Henkel from the conservative Americans For Prosperity said on social media about the plan.  

Contributions required from Milwaukee and Brewers

The deal to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee required support from Democrats, and it’s likely that a deal on the Brewers stadium will also. Democratic lawmakers criticized the Republican plan on Monday because of its local contribution requirements, however. 

“Republicans’ proposal released today falls short of recognizing the regional benefit of American Family Field and places too great of a financial burden on the city and county of Milwaukee,” Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) and Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee) said in a statement. “We remain willing to continue conversation and hopeful that a bipartisan agreement can be reached.”

Will Brewers stadium project need a community benefits deal to fly?

Republicans’ plan would require a contribution of $202 million — or about $7.5 million annually — from the city and county of Milwaukee over the length of the lease period. Republican lawmakers have insisted that a local contribution would be essential to advancing a deal. 

“The most direct economic benefit for keeping the team here is for the city and county of Milwaukee…Because of the sales taxes that they collect, if the team leaves, they have the most to lose,” Vos said at the press conference. “Of course, everybody would like somebody else to pay for everything, but that is not the reality of the economy that we live in.”  

Under the bill, Milwaukee County would be required to deposit $5 million into the baseball park facilities improvement segregated fund starting in 2024, while the City of Milwaukee would be required to annually deposit $2.5 million. If the city or county failed to make their payments, they could risk a reduction in state aid. 

Some Milwaukee leaders have opposed the use of local funds for the stadium. The Milwaukee County Board unanimously voted in May to pass a resolution opposing the use of county funds for future renovations of the stadium. 

The city will implement a 2% additional sales tax in the coming year and the county a 0.4% additional sales tax, both authorized by state legislation enacted in June. The fiscal bureau memo  estimates  how much of those new sales tax revenues could be attributed to the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team being located in the city and county of Milwaukee.

The additional sales tax revenue is meant to be used for pension obligations and public safety costs, however, and local leaders have mostly looked at money freed up as a result of the sales tax hikes as an opportunity to address other city or county services. 

County Supervisor Steve Taylor criticized the proposal, saying that any contributions to the stadium should come from the state and the Brewers.

“What’s even more disappointing is that I believed Republicans stood for fiscal responsibility and protecting the taxpayers,” Taylor said in a statement Monday. “This proposal costs taxpayers and the State more than double what Governor Evers wanted to spend.”

County Supervisor Sequanna Taylor has criticized the proposal in the past, saying that the money could be used to pay for essential services including “parks, public safety, senior services, transit, and improving our roadways.”

Supervisor Steve Taylor also criticized the Republican plan for not demanding more from the Brewers. 

“The Brewers’ proposed contribution is embarrassing and shows their lack of commitment to our community and its residents,” he stated. “This proposal is insulting to anyone with common sense and should be discarded. Time to go back to the drawing board or take it directly to the voters.” 

Brooks said on Monday that the “Brewers have stepped up in a large way.” 

Rick Schelsinger, president of business operations for the Milwaukee Brewers, said that Republicans’ plan shows that there is “true consensus across party lines for a solution to extend the life of American Family Field.” 

“With a $2.5 billion statewide economic impact that supports thousands of jobs, maintaining a first-rate ballpark is crucial for the Brewers to compete and Major League Baseball to remain viable in Wisconsin,” Schlesinger said. “It is important that we build on this momentum and focus on a plan that keeps America’s favorite pastime here in Wisconsin.

Schelsinger added that the team opposes the return of the five-county tax and is “prepared to commit to a generational lease extension for the Brewers to remain at American Family Field.”

Vos said he expects for the bill to receive a public hearing in late September or early October and for the full Assembly to vote in October.

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly attribute a quote to a Milwaukee county supervisor.

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.

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