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Evers set to sign Brewers package, after longtime Senators express dismay over floor process

The Milwaukee Brewers take on the Chicago Cubs at American Family Field, Oct. 1, 2023.
Chuck Quirmbach
The Milwaukee Brewers take on the Chicago Cubs at American Family Field, Oct. 1, 2023.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers says he'll soon sign the half-billion dollar stadium maintenance package for the Milwaukee Brewers, now that state lawmakers have given final approval.

The state Senate vote Tuesday was controversial, as Senators were unable to change the package on the floor of the chamber.

Typically, when big pieces of legislation make it to the floor of the state Assembly or Senate, lawmakers debate potential amendments. That happened recently, when the Assembly initially passed the Brewers financing package. But things were different in the Senate Tuesday, where backers of the bill were nervous about getting the 17 votes needed to pass the measure.

So, sponsors submitted late changes that made sure Milwaukee gets a seat on a revamped Stadium District Board, and increases the amount of a ticket tax on concerts and other non-Brewers events at the ballpark. That boost will cut the amount of income taxes on baseball players that the state steers to stadium maintenance.

Tens of millions of dollars in city and county of Milwaukee sales tax revenue would still go to the stadium. And the Brewers would spend up to $150 million.

The amendment, written behind closed doors, won Senate leaders enough support so that they got the chamber to only allow an up or down vote and not allow additional changes.

That angered a bipartisan group of veteran Senators, including a trio of Milwaukee Democrats.

Sen. Chris Larson said, "We shouldn't swing at a wild pitch. We should wait for ours and we can knock it out of the park together.''

Sen. Lena Taylor said, "It's shameful, when we allow processes to just snowball through."

And, Sen. Tim Carpenter said, "And you won't even allow us to have a vote on an amendment that says Brewers games attendees may continue to carry in food and beverages. What's wrong with that one?"

Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) also lamented the lack of floor amendments: "We were cheated out of that opportunity. It's not right."

Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) criticized not being able to propose an earlier audit of Milwaukee stadium spending, as there was for the Lambeau Field financial package for the Packers two decades ago.

"But along comes this item, $300-400 million taxpayers money across the state — no audit. I ask the question, why not?" Cowles said.

An effort to reverse course and make the Brewers package amendable failed 15-18. Then the measure passed 19-14. A key author, Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac) spoke to his colleagues: "This is a good deal for baseball fans, a good deal for taxpayers, and a good deal for the state of Wisconsin.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) joined a few Democrats from Madison and other communities in helping the GOP pass the stadium bill.

Later in the day, the state Assembly, without debate, agreed with the Senate version and passed the measure 72-26. Gov. Evers quickly added he'll sign the bill, saying it will keep the Brewers in Milwaukee until at least 2050.

Brewers President of Business Operations Rick Schlesinger called the Senate vote “historic.”

“The Brewers require a premier ballpark to drive ticket sales and continue to field competitive teams — making maintenance of the ballpark all the more critical,” he said in a statement.

The Brewers say 22-year-old American Family Field needs extensive repairs. The stadium's glass outfield doors, seats and concourses need replacing, the stadium's luxury suites and video scoreboard need upgrades and the stadium's signature retractable roof, fire suppression systems, parking lots, elevators and escalators need work, according to the team.

Brewers officials initially said the team might leave Milwaukee if they didn't get public dollars for repairs. Schlesinger softened the team's stance last month, saying the Brewers want to remain in the city “for the next generation." But the prospect of the team leaving looms.

Debates over handing billions of public dollars to professional sports teams are always divisive. The Brewers' principal owner, Mark Attanasio, is worth an estimated $700 million, according to Yahoo Finance, and the team itself is valued at around $1.6 billion, according to Forbes. But legislative leaders are fearful of losing tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue if the Brewers leave Milwaukee and have been working on a plan to help cover the repairs since September. The legislation has gone through multiple iterations.

The Assembly last month approved a plan that calls for the state to contribute $411.5 million and the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to contribute a combined $135 million. The state and the locals would make the payments in annual installments through 2050. The Brewers would contribute $100 million and extend their lease at the stadium through 2050, guaranteeing Major League Baseball would remain in its smallest market for another 27 years.

But Senate Republicans balked at the state contribution and amended the package last week to scale it back to $386.5 million, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis. They also added a $2 surcharge on tickets to non-baseball events and an $8 surcharge on luxury suite tickets to non-baseball events. The surcharges would generate an estimated $14.1 million by 2050. The city and county's contributions would remain unchanged but the team's contribution would increase to $110 million.

Republicans amended the plan again Tuesday, this time during floor debate, to incrementally raise the $2 ticket surcharge to $4 and the luxury suite ticket surcharge from $8 to $10 by 2050. The revenue would be used to reduce the state contribution. According to Legislative Fiscal Bureau projections, the surcharges will generate about $20.7 million, reducing the state contribution to $365.8 million.

Editor's note: Legislative audio for this story provided by Wisconsin Eye.

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