Thursday, April 18, 2024

Wisconsin’s governor wants to take nearly $300 million from the $7 billion surplus and spend it on baseball stadium repairs

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Democratic Gov. Tony Evers wants to hand the Milwaukee Brewers nearly $300 million from Wisconsin’s budget surplus to enact repairs and renovations at American Family Field.

The governor’s office announced Tuesday that his executive budget will include $290 million from the surplus for stadium repairs. In exchange for the money, the Brewers have agreed to extend their lease at the stadium by 13 years through 2043, the administration and the team said.

“As governor, and also someone who happens to be a lifelong Brewers fan, I’m so excited about the historic opportunity we have today to keep Major League Baseball here in Milwaukee for another twenty years and to usher in a new generation of Brewers fans in Wisconsin who can grow up rooting for the home team just like I did,” Evers said in a statement.

The agreement is far from a done deal, however. Evers is set to release his full 2023-25 budget on Wednesday. Republicans on the Legislature’s powerful finance committee will spend the next four months revising it before sending to the full Senate and Assembly for approval. From there, the spending plan goes back to Evers, who can rewrite it using his powerful partial veto powers.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday he was upset that Evers didn’t consult Republicans or work with the Legislature on plans to fund the stadium. “These are typical antics for him not being a leader, but rather dictating exactly what to do and how to do it,” Vos said.

Vos said he hoped Democrats and Republicans could work together to keep the Brewers in Wisconsin.

The money for the stadium repairs would be a one-time cash payment from the state surplus, which currently stands at around $7 billion. But the proposal is sure to rekindle old arguments over whether privately owned sports teams deserve public handouts to continue operating — especially the Brewers, who have benefited immensely from a sales tax that helped build the stadium.

Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers’ president of business operations, said in a statement that the stadium has had a $2.5 billion impact on the state’s economy since it opened in 2001 and contributes millions of dollars each year in tax revenue to the state.

“The Milwaukee Brewers are committed to working with policymakers on both sides of the aisle to extend the life of American Family Field and help make Major League Baseball possible in Wisconsin for the next generation,” Schlesinger said. “As the smallest market as defined by the MLB, Milwaukee requires a premier ballpark to generate ticket sales and compete — making maintenance of the ballpark all the more critical.”

The stadium opened in 2001 as Miller Park, replacing the Milwaukee’s aging County Stadium. The construction price tag was about $392 million, funded largely through a 0.1% sales tax imposed in Milwaukee County and the four other counties surrounding the stadium.

Construction got off to a tough start. The tax was a lightning rod for criticism; Republican state Sen. George Petak was recalled from office in 1996 after he switched his vote from no to yes on the tax plan. And three construction workers were killed at the stadium in 1999 when a crane collapsed and struck their observation lift.

But the park ultimately got built. Known for its distinctive fantail retractable roof, the stadium became a destination for Wisconsin baseball fans as the Brewers experienced a resurgence in the late 2000s, advancing to their first playoff appearance in 26 years in 2008. The team has made five other trips to the playoffs since then, including two appearances in the National League Championship Series.

The tax was ultimately enacted that year and generated about $605 million before it expired in 2020. The stadium name changed to American Family Field in 2021 after the Brewers struck a 15-year naming rights deal with the insurance company.

The Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District essentially serves as the Brewers’ landlord at the stadium. The Brewers’ lease calls for the district to cover repairs, but Evers’ office said the end of the sales tax has left the district short of funds, according to the governor’s office and the Brewers.

“We oppose the return of the five-county tax, and we are prepared to commit to a lease extension for the Brewers to remain at American Family Field through at least 2042,” the Brewers’ Schlesinger said.

Evers’ office said the $290 million payment will go to the district, which will invest the money and collect interest on it as it disburses funds to cover repairs.

Former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed a bill in August 2015 to contribute $250 million in taxpayer dollars to help pay for the Fiserv Forum, the Milwaukee Bucks’ arena. Brown County residents approved a half-cent sales tax in 2000 to help pay for renovations at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. That tax expired in 2015 after generating about $310 million.

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Associated Press writer Harm Venhuizen contributed to this report.

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