Mixed reviews for GOP plan to fund the Brewers stadium

Milwaukee officials concerned about local contributions

By: - October 6, 2023 5:45 am

Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) emphasized that the state of Wisconsin owns American Family Field on Thursday. (Screenshot via WisEye)

Wisconsin lawmakers heard testimony on a pair of bills that would spend about $600 million in public funds on maintenance and renovations at American Family Field and extend the Milwaukee Brewers’ lease through 2050 on Thursday — the day after the Major League Baseball team was ousted from its wildcard series.

“I’m not blaming you for the Brewers’ loss…Nonetheless, it was still a great season,” bill coauthor Rep. Roberts Brooks (R-Saukville) said at the beginning of his testimony. “We, as the owners, meaning the state, own the facility that the Brewers play in, and I think that’s the first thing that I want to make perfectly clear.” 

American Family Field is owned by the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, a state agency that leases the stadium to the Brewers. 

Brooks emphasized the need for the state to uphold its contractual obligations at the Assembly State Affairs committee hearing held at the Wisconsin State Fair Park on Thursday. The hearing comes as lawmakers and other stakeholders have expressed concerns about the team potentially leaving at the end of the current lease in 2030. 

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican lawmakers have agreed that a deal needs to be reached on funding for the stadium, but certain details of the deal are still unsettled. The current proposal 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, the bill’s coauthor, emphasized the need for the state to uphold its contractual obligations at the Assembly State Affairs committee hearing held at the State Fair Park on Thursday.

Tim Sheehy, chair of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, told the committee he was afraid that if a deal wasn’t reached then the western entrance to Milwaukee would be a “dilapidated building” because there aren’t going to be other tenants that are going to use this facility.

Sheehy said the state is going to be challenged to make it to the end of the current lease. He said the agency will likely need to make choices about what improvements can be made depending on the budget and whether there is an agreement.

Under the Republican bill, the state would appropriate a total of $411.5 million in funding to the Department of Administration to make payments to the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, the state agency that owns and leases the stadium to the Brewers. The bill would also provide $50 million in funding for short-term loans for the same purpose. 

The state money, according to Brooks, would come directly from the state income tax collected from the baseball players. He addressed concerns about what would happen if the state’s income tax rates were to decrease — a goal that Republican lawmakers have continued to push towards — at any point during the new lease period. 

“A flat tax would be replaced with sales tax and we’d have to readjust,” Brooks said. “If there’s a reduction in the upper bracket, which we know the governor will not pass right now, but if that happens in the future, we may have to look at this. But there’s enough money built in with the reserve account to accommodate a reduction in that upper tax bracket as well.”

Brooks said that the Republican plan is preferable to Evers’ plan, which would have dedicated $290 million in state funds to extend the team’s lease through 2043, because it would would winterize the stadium, require a local tax contribution, and covers the entirety of estimated costs that studies suggest are needed — including one that said $428 million of work needed to be done.

Another bill — AB 438 — sets out the other provisions of the Republican proposal, including a requirement to spend $25 million on winterizing the stadium, changing the makeup of the district’s governing board and requiring the city and county of Milwaukee to pay $7.5 million annually.

Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Milwaukee Brewers, explained that the benefits of winterizing the stadium would be less about revenue brought in by other events like concerts and more about helping the team do more and showcasing the facility in the off season.  

“If we’re fortunate enough to get Taylor Swift, which would be my daughter’s dream, that money goes to Taylor Swift,” Schlesinger said. “We obviously get a share of concessions and parking, but from our perspective … I just don’t want anybody to have this illusion that a concert may generate $10 million of revenue.” 

Schlesinger told the committee that there is some urgency for a deal to be reached. 

“We don’t need a new ballpark. We don’t need to expend that kind of money. It’s not necessary.” Schlesinger said. “We can spend, collectively, a much smaller amount and extend our tenancy through an extra generation.”

Schlesinger said the organization will support “whatever compromise works for our state to keep us here for the next 27 years.”  The compromise is still being negotiated among lawmakers, Evers and city and county officials, according to Brooks. 

Brooks said he expects for there to be amendments to the bills, including from the Senate. 

Some of the changes being discussed, he said, include decreasing the local contribution requirements, keeping a city and county Milwaukee representative on the district board, adding a ticket tax for non-Brewers events and an audit requirement.

Milwaukee contribution might decrease, city representatives concerned

The local contribution portion of the proposal has remained a major point of contention about the deal. 

Republican lawmakers have insisted that the city and county of Milwaukee need to contribute to the upkeep of the field, while Evers and Democrats have expressed worries about how burdensome the requirement would be.  

“The governor’s proposal had no local contribution,” Brooks said. “Just like the Bucks deal, we wanted a local contribution.” A 2015 deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, which required bipartisan support to get it across the finish line, included $250 million in contributions from the state, city and county of Milwaukee.

Evers said Thursday he was “likely to support” any bill that comes to his desk, but remains concerned about how much the city and county will have to contribute.

Brooks pointed to the new sales tax as justification for why Milwaukee should be able to contribute to the deal. 

The city and county of Milwaukee received the ability to levy a new 2% and 0.4% local sales tax under Act 12, a local funding law that passed the Republican-led Legislature and was signed by Evers in July. The final law gave Milwaukee a 10% bump in its shared revenue payment from the state, compared to the 20% or more increase that other municipalities across the state received, in part because of the sales tax. 

The sales taxes, however, were specifically meant to help alleviate a local funding shortfall by covering pension costs and public safety costs. 

“Those sales taxes have already been earmarked for a specific purpose, which is to subsidize all our local public safety agencies, police, fire and EMS,” Rep. Marisabel Cabrera (D-Milwaukee) said during the hearing. “It is a substantial amount that the whole reason why we came up with a new sales tax was just to be able to barely cover our basic services.”

The sales tax has improved Milwaukee’s financial outlook, but has not completely alleviated its financial problems. A recent study by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found the sales tax and shared revenue increase is enabling the city to generally maintain existing service levels and even invest in some key areas. However, the report also cautioned that the city could potentially see a $35 million to $45 million gap in its budget after  federal funds dry up in 2025.

Under the current Republican Brewers’ proposal, 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 under the current draft of the bill. The city and county could risk a reduction in state aid if they fail to make the payments.

Brooks said the bill could change, however, and called the $7.5 million total a “placeholder.” 

“There are some things that we can provide, greater flexibility within Act 12 and other things to help the city and the county,” Brooks said. “I’m not going to get into those details because they’re ongoing negotiations, but I am hopeful that we can bring that $7.5 million commitment down to $5 million.

Many Milwaukee officials have voiced opposition to the local contribution requirement with the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passing a resolution in May in opposition to giving any local taxpayer money for renovations of the stadium.

Milwaukee County Sup. Peter Burgelis testified on Thursday against the local contribution component, saying that stadium funding wasn’t why local officials agreed to increase the sales tax.  

“We did that to avert financial ruin for the county. Changing the rules on what county sales tax revenue can be used for, redirecting that from pension obligations to stadium support wasn’t part of the shared revenue deal and it pulls the rug out from under Milwaukee County taxpayers,” Burgelis said. “A $5 million hole in the budget means Milwaukee county will have to again make tough budget cuts. Which senior centers should be closed? Which mental health or food share program should be eliminated?”


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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.