Anti-Milwaukee Bias Rears Its Head in Funding Fight Over Brewers Ballpark

(Photo by Matt Marton/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

American Family Field in Milwaukee as fans arrive for the 2021 Opening Day game between the Minnesota Twins and the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Photo by Matt Marton/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

By Pat Kreitlow

September 19, 2023

Gov. Evers wants to use a record budget surplus to help fix American Family Field. Republican lawmakers want to “stick it to Milwaukee.” Everyone would’ve been better off not killing a once-successful regional funding option.

Wisconsin Republicans introduced a plan on Monday to fund repairs at American Family Field, ending a nearly six-month period of uncertainty about  whether there would be bipartisan agreement on the need to keep the Milwaukee Brewers from leaving Wisconsin. 

It’s nice of the GOP to finally show up on the playing field, but there are serious flaws in their game plan. And politicians of all stripes would be wise to learn (once again) that it’s foolish to wait until something is falling apart before starting discussions on how to fix it.

Some History and Some Cooperation

The stadium, opened in 2001 as Miller Park, originally cost $392 million to build. A 1995 legislative deal to fund the original construction included a 0.1% sales tax imposed in Milwaukee County and the four other counties nearest the stadium: Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, and Racine. It was an example of regional cooperation for the economic good of the whole region—with one bump in the road when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson used the phrase “Stick it to ‘em,” when talking about the bulk of the tax burden falling on Milwaukee.

That sales tax—once estimated to cost the average five-county resident about $11 per year—raised a total of $605 million before it was allowed to expire in 2020. 

More than 20 years later, the ballpark needs extensive work throughout the facility—its signature retractable roof, video scoreboard, those large glass doors in the outfield, its  fire suppression system, and even its parking lots all need fixes. 

But the regional sales tax  is gone and so the debate over public funding started all over again this year.

Split Government, Dueling Plans

Gov. Tony Evers introduced a plan in February to fund stadium repairs and keep the Brewers in Milwaukee. His plan was simple and was paid for—but it was rejected out of hand by Republicans in charge of the Legislature. 

Evers’ plan would have funded the repairs with nearly $300 million from the state’s record $7 billion budget surplus. In return, the Brewers would agree to extend their lease with the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, the public-private board that owns the stadium, from 2030 to 2043. 

Under this plan, the Brewers would have been required to stay in Milwaukee for at least another 13 years, ensuring an annual economic impact to the region of $260 million per year, according to estimates from  UW-Milwaukee.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) promised a better deal that would keep the Brewers tied to Milwaukee even longer. The plan released Monday would  extend the lease until 2050, but at more than double the total cost.

The Republicans’ $614 million plan would put up $60.8 million in state funding in the next fiscal year and up to $20 million each year after that through 2045-46, with the funds coming from a variety of sources.

The team currently generates nearly $20 million in state and local sales taxes per year, money that would be put toward the stadium repairs under the GOP plan. Vos and LeMahieu’s proposal would also apply the income taxes generated by Major League Baseball (MLB) players and staff—which last year amounted to $12.4 million, according to a Wisconsin Watch report citing Wisconsin Dept. of Revenue data—to the funding effort. 

The plan would also require a $100 million commitment from the Brewers. 

But here’s the rub: the Republican plan also calls on the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to put up $202 million and $135 million respectively, over the term of the extended lease—the same city and county that Republicans love to denigrate, threaten, and micromanage, even as it has faced fiscal crises after years of stingy state support.  

What’s missing from the Republican plan? The regional funding cooperation. Nothing is asked of the suburban counties and its residents, who would use the stadium much more frequently than fans up north but not pay a dollar more for the benefits a major league team brings to the regional economy. It’s reminiscent of Tommy Thompson’s “Stick it to ‘em” attitude in 1995.

Assembly Democratic Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) and Assistant Democratic Leader Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee) released a statement saying the Republican proposal “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.” 

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said the GOP plan amounted to taxation without representation, since it also calls for a change in the makeup of the stadium district board—dropping local appointees and handing those appointments primarily to legislators and the governor.

That fraction-of-a-penny regional sales tax could still be out there helping the district pay for ongoing maintenance and renovations, if Republican legislators hadn’t allowed it to expire in 2020. 

Lessons to Learn—or Re-learn

It is understandable that lawmakers didn’t want to be seen as creating a temporary tax that later became permanent. But did anyone think the stadium would stop aging after 2020? Once again we’re left to pay for a can that yesterday’s politicians kicked down the road.

We’re also left with yet another missed opportunity from a record state budget surplus. In multiple instances, Evers’ original budget bill used the surplus to taxpayers’ advantage—putting cash up front in order to save on interest costs. Republicans seem so hell-bent on sending much of our surplus to the wealthiest in Wisconsin through tax breaks that they’re willing to make taxpayers eat the extra interest. 

There’s also the irony that the same Republicans fighting so hard to protect some millionaires from paying their fair share of taxes are happy to fork over the tax revenue raised from millionaire ballplayers.  

Milwaukee-area politics has a city-suburban divide as deep as anyplace else in the country. The 1995 ballpark deal acknowledged that regional cooperation is the best path forward, but the Republican plan is only the latest embodiment of Tommy Thompson’s “stick it to ‘em” mindset.

Milwaukee is MLB’s smallest market, just as the Packers are in the smallest National Football League market. It would take a Herculean effort to replace not only the dollars but the prestige that comes with having these clubs in our communities. We can debate the proper level of support that various stakeholders —the team, taxpayers, players, local governments, fans, and so on—should provide in the stadium plan, but our elected leaders first need to engage in conduct that may seem very strange to them: teamwork. 

Republican legislators would do well to work with Gov. Evers to overcome their differences, work out a regional deal, stop trying to punish political adversaries, and create a revenue stream that keeps us from repeating this all over again in another quarter-century.

Author

  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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