Opposition to the Brewers deal remains as it moves into the Senate

By: - October 23, 2023 5:45 am
Milwaukee Brewers stadium

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

A deal to dedicate $546 million in public money toward repairs at American Family Field and to extend the Milwaukee Brewers’ lease through 2050 is advancing quickly through the Legislature. The plan remains divisive among Democrats, Republicans and other stakeholders as opponents say the current deal gives too much taxpayer money to stadium renovations without enough in return. 

A pair of bills, which would fund the stadium renovations and maintenance using $411 million in state money, $135 million in local contributions and includes a commitment of $100 million from the Major League Baseball (MLB) team, are being considered by the Senate after the Assembly passed them last week in a bipartisan vote. 

The plan garnered the support of additional lawmakers, Gov. Tony Evers and local Milwaukee leaders after recent amendments were adopted, including a decrease in the original $200 million contribution expected of the city and county of Milwaukee. 

However, opponents of the proposal — including Republican and Democratic lawmakers, several organizations and members of the public — continue to criticize advancement of such a large investment of public money to benefit a profit-making private enterprise and to propose several changes to better the deal. 

‘A false sense of urgency’

Throughout negotiations, which started with Evers proposing to tap into the state’s budget surplus to put $290 million into a stadium upgrade during the budget process, conversations among lawmakers and the team have focused on “keeping” the Brewers in Milwaukee. 

American Family Field is owned and leased to the Brewers by the South, a state agency. There are seven years left in the current lease between the groups. Proponents of the deal, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), have stressed that a deal must be reached as soon as possible because the state owns the stadium, and if the team were to leave, then the stadium would still be the state’s responsibility. 

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and other stakeholders, questioned the threat that a deal needs to be found immediately or the Brewers could leave. 

Teams across MLB, most recently the Chicago White Sox, are increasingly considering moving cities due to stadium issues. The Oakland Athletics, which are set to leave for Las Vegas after failing to find a solution over stadium funding with their California hometown, have been brought up in the discussion of the Brewers. Yet the A’s situation is an outlier when it comes to MLB teams. 

“The question that lobbyists like to ask is, ‘Do you support the Brewers? Do you want to see the Brewers stay?’” Larson told the Wisconsin Examiner. “That is the tactic that every Major League team uses… so that they basically turn over their wallets — lawmakers, in this case, turn over the wallets of taxpayers — without actually recognizing that this is a scam.”

Larson also noted that there are several other MLB teams with contracts that end before the Brewers’ contract does in 2030, but they are taking their time with negotiations. One example is the Baltimore Orioles, whose contract with the state of Maryland is set to expire this year. The team came to an agreement with the state recently after lengthy negotiations that includes handing over operations and maintenance to the team.

A coalition of organizations including Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), Voces de la Frontera/Voces de la Frontera Action, Kids Forward and WISDOM recently echoed those concerns. 

“The alternative location for the team that is being held over Wisconsin, Nashville, is on a 5 year trajectory, and has no stadium subsidy in place,” the coalition noted in a statement. “It is being used by Major League Baseball as a cudgel in an attempt to force stadium subsidies in multiple cities, including Chicago. Not all of these teams can move to Nashville.” 

In a letter released Thursday, the groups urged the state Senate and Evers to slow down the process and negotiate a fair deal for the people of Wisconsin. They said in their letter that there was a “full-court lobbying press to force a bad decision by creating a false sense of urgency among state lawmakers.” 

The Brewers have spent $575,000 from January through June 2023 on the state Legislature — the most of any lobbying group — and have put in more than 143 hours communicating with state lawmakers.

In explaining the recent urgency behind finding a deal, Republican leaders on the bill have also said there isn’t enough money for the state to meet its contractual obligations through the current lease period. 

Larson says there is a financial responsibility question at stake. Three years ago, lawmakers and local officials agreed to end the five-county tax, which was funding the stadium district’s maintenance, under the impression that enough money had been collected to comply with the lease. An analysis by Milwaukee Magazine found that the tax, while unpopular, could have addressed current funding concerns.

“If that happened in the University System — [if] they said, ‘Oh, we have enough reserves to last us 10 years,’ and then three years later, they said, ‘It’s all gone, and we need an influx of $500 million before the end of the year,’ politicians would be asking a lot more questions than they are with this,” Larson said. 

He and other senators, including Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), have said they want an audit of the stadium district’s finances included in any deal.

Opposition to the amount of public money, for little in return 

Beyond the circumstances behind the timing of the deal, many opponents to the deal have concerns about the amount of money on the table — $546 million. 

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said he finds it “ludicrous” that a sports team valued at over $1.6 billion “would be moved to the front of the line at the public trough, when there’s so much else we should be investing in, in terms of public education, in terms of health care, mental health, and then even supplying school meals for students.” 

Larson, who has hosted several town halls on the issue, said attendees have also been mostly united in their opposition to spending taxpayer dollars on the stadium. 

“I find it kind of frustrating that a lot of politicians are pushing them to the front of the line when, if you look at public survey after public survey on this, it is wildly unpopular,” Larson said. 

Fifty-five percent of respondents in a recent poll of about 1,300 Wisconsinites conducted by Public Policy Polling said they opposed tax money being used to pay for improvements to the Brewers baseball stadium. In the same poll, 70% of respondents said the $550 million of tax money to be spent on Brewers stadium improvement should be spent on other government priorities such as public safety, health care and roads.

Larson said a 50-50 split between private and public contributions, similar to the 2015 Milwaukee Bucks deal, would be preferable. He has also proposed giving taxpayers an equity share in the team or even selling the stadium to the team. 

Lawmakers have also expressed concerns about the precedent that the current deal could set.

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who opposes the plans, said taxpayers were being “forced to funnel” money towards a deal that provides little return to most taxpayers, and said the deal could set “the state up to spend more at the end of the lease when it comes time to fund a brand new $1 billion-plus stadium project.” He suggested Republican leaders should attach their $2.9 billion tax cut to the deal if they are going to pass it. 

A ticket tax on all events at the stadium is another proposal that lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), Larson and Knodl, have said they would support.

“There needs to be a sales tax that’s added on all activities that happen at the stadium and in the parking lot,” Larson said. “The people going to the stadium should pay for the stadium, and otherwise all of that money is just going straight into the pocket of the Brewers and the owners.” 

Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville), who has led the construction of the current plan, has said that the chances of a ticket tax on Brewers events happening are “slim-to-none” because the team is opposed. He said the team agreed to pay an additional $100 million, so that a tax wouldn’t be necessary and ticket costs could be kept low.

The coalition of groups that opposes the deal brought up concerns that the stadium and the team don’t provide as much economic benefit as some believe. Their letter pointed to one academic analysis that found “little to no tangible impacts of sports teams and facilities on local economic activity, and the level of venue subsidies typically provided far exceeds any observed economic benefits.”

They said that the “only way to legitimately justify a more than half billion dollar public subsidy for the maintenance and improvement of a sports stadium would be specific and enforceable agreement as part of the legislation that commits the Brewers to providing tangible community benefits.” 

The groups suggested that additional benefits could include improved compensation for stadium workers, project labor agreements, ancillary economic development in the area of the stadium, allowing the stadium district to capture the proceeds of other events hosted by the stadium it owns and direct benefits for low-income people of color communities who cannot afford to attend games. 

The Senate Government Operations committee is scheduled to take up the bills on Wednesday.


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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.