Wisconsin Assembly approves $546 million Brewers stadium deal on Tuesday

By: - October 18, 2023 5:42 am

The Wisconsin Assembly votes to pass a deal on Brewers’ stadium funding on Oct. 17, 2023. (Wisconsin Examiner | Baylor Spears.)

Wisconsin Assembly lawmakers approved a deal that would dedicate $546 million in public funding to maintenance and renovations at American Family Field and extend the Milwaukee Brewers’ lease of the stadium through 2050. 

The pair of bills — AB 438 and AB 439 — passed in a bipartisan 69-27 vote. The current plan includes contributions of $411 million from the state, $135 million from the city and county of Milwaukee and a $100 million commitment from the Milwaukee Brewers. 

“There are some critics who are out there saying that we should let the Brewers leave and it’s not worth it for our economy. They’re just flat out wrong,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said at a press conference ahead of the floor session. “The Brewers are great for Wisconsin. This is a good deal for the taxpayers

Recent amendments to the bill reduced the local contribution requirement, which Republican leaders have insisted is a necessary part of the deal. The version passed by the Assembly requires the city and county of Milwaukee each to contribute $2.5 million annually. The city of Milwaukee will be able to cover its portion of the payments through a reduction in the amount it pays the state in administrative fees on the city’s new sales tax. 

Those changes helped the deal gain the support of Gov. Tony Evers, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and some Democratic lawmakers. 

“I am grateful that the proposal in front of us today minimizes the impact of this bill on the people of Milwaukee, that the bill did not raise taxes on the people of Wisconsin or hit the city and county of Milwaukee’s bottom line,” Minority Leader Greta Neubauer said during the floor session on Tuesday.

Positions on the agreement crossed party lines during the floor session, which was marked by personal anecdotes about the Major League Baseball team from supporters and opponents of the deal. Fifteen Republicans and 12 Democrats voted against the bills. 

Wisconsin’s contractual obligations and the economic impact of the Brewers were major points for supporters.

The Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, a state agency, owns and leases the stadium to the Brewers. The current lease runs through 2030, but lawmakers have said that it’s likely there are not enough available funds to meet the lease terms.

“Whether we like it or not, we own the stadium. It is owned by the taxpayers of Wisconsin,” Vos said during the session. “If the team leaves, what happens to the state? We keep it? They have a few events there a year. Probably not. We tear it down and then we have nothing to show for the investment.” 

Other lawmakers focused on other economic factors related to the deal that could benefit the state. 

“The ramifications of the Brewers leaving go far beyond just what we’re seeing,” Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls). “We will sell dramatically fewer bratwursts if the Brewers leave Wisconsin.” 

The agreement requires the district to spend $25 million to winterize the stadium and to produce a report on developing the property surrounding the stadium for non-baseball uses. The legislation also changes the makeup of the district’s governing board.

Rep. Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield), who admitted to having no emotional attachment to baseball, said she thought winterizing the stadium could help bring more big names to the state. 

“I’m not a Taylor Swift fan either, but I don’t know if you all saw the way she moves the needle economically when she goes to a place,” Rozar said.

The Eras Tour, Swift’s ongoing worldwide tour, is estimated to generate $5 billion in consumer spending, and her stops have been reported to boost local economies by hundreds of millions of dollars in one weekend as fans spend money on hotels, food and transportation. Swift will end the tour at Rogers Centre, home to the MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays, in November 2024. 

“Maybe we can get people that move the needle economically,” Rozar said. 

Lawmakers who opposed the bills, including some who recalled fond experiences with the Brewers, said they couldn’t support giving so much public money for that purpose.

“It appears to me that we can’t help the average person in the state of Wisconsin, whether it be health care, whether it be housing, whether it be a plethora of issues, but we will move heaven and earth to make sure billionaires get what they want,” Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde (D-Milwaukee) said on the floor. 

Rep. Lori Palmeri (D-Oshkosh) said that it is time for the state to stand up to corporations and professional sports teams that threaten to leave the state if they aren’t given what they want. 

Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes, a blog that analyzes public subsidies of athletic stadiums, has said that apart from certain NFL teams, professional teams athletic teams almost never relocate because the value of a team comes from being in a sizable media market, and the best markets are already taken. He told the Wisconsin Examiner earlier this year that team owners do, however, often threaten to move to “shake loose subsidies in their current cities.”

The Brewers have not explicitly threatened to leave Milwaukee, but throughout negotiations on the legislation, the Oakland Athletics, who are slated to move to Las Vegas after failed negotiations with the city of Oakland, have been mentioned. Messaging from lawmakers and other stakeholders has also focused heavily on “keeping” the team in the city. 

Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee) said in a statement that it’s “irresponsible to give $546 million in taxpayer funds to a team that has increased more than $1 billion in value since the last time we used taxpayer funds to build them a stadium.” He suggested that if the Brewers wanted to commit to the city and state, the team should buy the stadium. 

Rep. Nate Gustafson (R-Neenah) called the deal “mid.” He said he couldn’t support the deal as is.

Representatives could get another chance to vote on the bill. The bills will go to the Senate, where there could be additional amendments. If the Senate passes a different version, the Assembly would need to vote on the proposal again. 

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), has come out opposed to the bill and suggested Republican leaders should attach their $2.9 billion tax cut to the deal if they are going to pass it. Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) recently said on UPFront that he would support a ticket tax on all events at the stadium.

“There will be other amendments forthcoming,” Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) said at a press conference ahead of the vote. “I’ve heard everything from a middle class tax cut… and people trying to put things into this bill. Those are things that we have never discussed.” 

Brooks said a ticket tax on non-Brewers events has been discussed, but that a ticket tax on Brewers events is “slim-to-none.” He said the Brewers agreed to the $100 million contribution on top of their increased rent payments to avoid a ticket tax and keep costs down.

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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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