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Wisconsin Legislature approves final version of Brewers stadium deal

by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
November 15, 2023

Wisconsin lawmakers approved a controversial deal to spend about $500 million in public money on renovations and maintenance of American Family Field on Tuesday, despite objections from some lawmakers that the package has a lopsided impact on taxpayers.

The Wisconsin Senate concurred in both Brewers bills — AB 438 and AB 439 — in a bipartisan 19-14 vote after making some additional changes on Tuesday morning. The Assembly approved the deal for a second time with the Senate’s changes in a 72-26 vote on Tuesday afternoon, setting the bills up to go to Gov. Tony Evers.

Evers announced in a statement following the votes that he will sign the bills. 

“I’m proud to say we’re going to be keeping the Brewers in Milwaukee, supporting thousands of family-supporting jobs — including union jobs — and ensuring a new generation of Wisconsinites can grow up cheering for the home team just like countless others before them,” Evers said. “As a lifelong Brewers fan, I always believed that we could work together to find common ground and build bipartisan support to keep this team and critical economic driver right here in Wisconsin, and today, that’s exactly what we did.”

The approval from lawmakers comes after months of negotiations between the Legislature, the governor, the team and other stakeholders.

The Assembly first approved the bills last month. That version of the deal would have dedicated $411 million from the state, $135 million from the city and county of Milwaukee and included a $100 million commitment from the Brewers. In exchange for getting a deal, the team will agree to extend its lease with the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, the state agency in charge of the stadium, through 2050.

With many senators concerned about the size of the proposal and other aspects of the deal, lawmakers adopted changes to the bill last week. Those amendments included reducing the state contribution by $20 million, adding a ticket surcharge for non-Brewers events to further reduce the state’s contribution, increasing the Brewers’ contribution by $10 million and a biennial audit requirement. 

During floor debate on Tuesday, senators adopted additional changes to the bill that sought to further address concerns about the size of the deal and the makeup of the stadium district board.

Under an amendment, the ticket surcharge on non-Brewers events will gradually increase over the course of the lease, starting at $2 in 2024, rising to $3 in 2033 and to $4 in 2042 to 2050. A ticket surcharge would also be applied to stadium luxury box and suite tickets would start at $8 in 2024, increase to $9 in 2033 and then to $10 in 2042 through the end of the lease. 

The amendment also specified that once the state’s grant annual payments are completed, the money collected from the ticket surcharge will be transferred from the district’s segregated fund to the state’s general fund. 

The stadium district board will be expanded to 13 members with the amendment, an addition of four members. 

Under the bill, the district board will include four members appointed by the governor, two members appointed by the majority leader of the senate, two members appointed by the speaker of the assembly and one member appointed by the governor from a list provided by the Brewers. 

The amendment added another appointment by the Senate majority leader, one by the speaker of the Assembly and two appointed by the governor. The governor’s additional appointments will be picked from lists provided by the city and county of Milwaukee.

The amendment also removed a Senate confirmation requirement for members appointed at the governor’s sole discretion and for the member appointed by the governor from a list provided by the team. 

While the changes helped get the bills over the finish line, not all senators were supportive of the final deal and opposition crossed party lines. 

The majority of senators who represent parts of Milwaukee County voted against the bills, including Sens. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) and Julian Bradley (R-Franklin). 

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) was the only from the area to vote in support of the bills.

Larson urged lawmakers to vote the bills down. 

“The Brewers do not need this cash,” Larson said. He said lawmakers are falling for a “trick that is unfortunately pulled by Major League Baseball around the country… all these teams whisper repeatedly that ‘we’re going to pull your team away from you, if you don’t give us the cash.’” 

Professional baseball teams rarely relocate, but many, including the Chicago White Sox, are increasingly considering moving cities due to stadium issues. While the Brewers have not explicitly threatened to leave Milwaukee, messaging from lawmakers and other stakeholders has focused heavily on getting the team to “stay” and “keeping” the team in the city. 

Larson said the deal in its current form was lacking when compared to the deal that was approved by lawmakers in 2015 to fund the construction of Fiserv Forum where the Milwaukee Bucks play. He noted that it included contributions that were split 50/50 between private and public sectors and a labor deal to guarantee local employment and union representation for employees. He also pointed out that at the end of that deal there was a new arena, whereas the Brewers deal is only to improve the existing stadium. 

Larson added that lawmakers at the very least should have removed a provision in the bill that says American Family Field needs to be in the top 25% of stadiums of the MLB, warning that it could allow the team to demand more from the state in the future.

Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) said he was concerned about there not being an audit ahead of approval of the deal.

“We’re wasting the opportunity by not having that audit in front of us,” Cowles said. “It should be the first thing to help guide us through this dilemma.”

Sen. Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee echoed those sentiments, saying he “could’ve voted for the bill if there had been an audit beforehand and if there would’ve been money that the Brewers would’ve had to pay in, another $100 million.” 

The bill author, Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac), argued Milwaukee and Wisconsin are better off with the Brewers in the state and pointed to economic benefits of the team. He said the team has contributed $2.5 billion to the state’s economy since the stadium opened in 2001, including $24 million in net state revenue and 3,000 jobs in 2022.

Feyen said the plan passed on Tuesday is “a good deal for baseball fans, good deal for taxpayers and a good deal for the state of Wisconsin.”

Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) said that lawmakers were “investing in a long term solution for a state asset” and that the deal was made better through bipartisan negotiations in the Senate. 

“We are choosing to make this investment,” Agard said. “But it doesn’t have to be a false choice between funding the stadium district, investing in the University System or public schools or child care structures.”

Rick Schlesinger, president of business operations for the Brewers, called the Senate vote in a statement, a “historic moment.”

“As the Brewers landlord, the Stadium District needs resources to honor its current lease agreement with its tenant,” Schlesinger added. “Today’s bipartisan vote creates a path to provide those resources.”

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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