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Wisconsin state Senate approves $501 million public funds for Milwaukee Brewers stadium renovation bill



FILE - American Family Field in Milwaukee is shown Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin state Senate narrowly approved a plan Tuesday to spend $501 million over the next 30 years to help repair the Milwaukee Brewers stadium, brushing aside arguments that the team has more than enough money and doesn’t deserve such a sizable government subsidy.

The chamber approved the legislation on a 19-14 vote, sending it to the Assembly for a floor vote later Tuesday. Speaker Robin Vos has signaled his support for the proposal.

Assembly passage would put the bill in front of Gov. Tony Evers, who can sign it into law or veto it. Evers’ spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, said Monday that the governor supports the plan.

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. Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers’ president of business operations, 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. Outdated estimates show Brewers’ principal owner, Mark Attanasio, is worth an estimated $700 million — numbers that were calculated prior to the pandemic. Other estimates that, too, are outdated, have the team itself is valued at around $1.6 billion, according to Forbes, though other sports teams have since sold for much higher amounts.

Legislative leaders are fearful of losing tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue if the Brewers leave Milwaukee — not to mention being blamed for the team leaving by not getting a deal done — 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.

Some in the Senate 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, who control the Legislature, 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.

Democratic Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee railed against the public contribution on the Senate floor, labeling the Brewers’ talk of leaving a “trick” that other Major League Baseball teams have used to leverage public dollars for stadiums. He said public dollars would be better spent on local ballparks, complaining that the field where his children play is a “mud pit.”

“The Brewers do not need this cash,” Larson said. “The Brewers have decided they need additional cash and we are falling for that.”

Republican Sen. Dan Feyen of Fond du Lac, who authored the Senate amendments, argued that the team will generate more than $600 million in income tax revenue over the next three decades.

“The state of Wisconsin is far better off with the Brewers here,” Feyen said. “This is a good deal for baseball fans, a good deal for taxpayers, a good deal for the state of Wisconsin. The vote is yes.”

The final vote was fractured, with three of the four Democrats who represent Milwaukee joining 11 Republicans in voting against it. LaTonya Johnson was the only Milwaukee Democrat who voted for the plan.

The stadium opened in 2001 as Miller Park and replaced aging County Stadium. Construction cost about $392 million and was funded largely through a 0.1% sales tax imposed in Milwaukee County and the four other counties that surround the stadium. The sales tax 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.

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