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Wisconsin Assembly approves $546M funding deal for Brewers stadium

Milwaukee Democrats were divided on the plan, which requires the city and county to contribute $135M

American Family Field can be seen as people walk toward it on the sidewalk.
Fans walk into American Family Field to watch the Brewers’ season opener Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Milwaukee. Angela Major/WPR

The state of Wisconsin, together with the county and city of Milwaukee, would contribute $546 million toward maintenance of the Milwaukee Brewers stadium under a bill that passed the Wisconsin State Assembly on Tuesday.

The Brewers would contribute $100 million in a bipartisan deal that would guarantee the team continues playing at American Family Field in Milwaukee until 2050.

The debate offered a rare glimpse at a bill that would have failed in the Assembly without votes from Democrats, which gave the minority party more bargaining power in than it’s accustomed to in the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Legislature.

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The proposal has not yet been scheduled in the Senate, where it could be amended later this year. If it passes both chambers, Gov. Tony Evers has signaled he will sign it.

The funding package comes after months of negotiation, including amendments in recent weeks to lower the amount of the local contribution from Milwaukee County and the city of Milwaukee.

Those changes earned the plan some key Democratic votes, but the party was split, with some of Milwaukee’s state lawmakers expressing opposition to being on the hook for stadium improvements at a time that the city is in dire financial straits, and after a months-long fight for increased state funding.

Cars are parked in the parking lot in front of American Family Field. A small group of men gather before entering.
Fans gather before walking into American Family Field for the Brewers’ season opener Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Milwaukee. Angela Major/WPR

“In a year where Milwaukee finally may be able to get above the surface fiscally, with the passage of shared revenue, we’re being forced to take on the stadium funding burden alone,” said Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde, D-Milwaukee.

The bill ultimately passed 69-27, with 47 Republicans and 22 Democrats voting in favor. It also faced bipartisan opposition as 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats voted against.

Under the proposal, Milwaukee County and the city would pay $2.5 million per year through 2030. The city would be permitted to pay its share by redirecting an administrative fee collected on its new local sales tax, approved earlier this year.

All told, the county and city would contribute $135 million, and the state would contribute $411 million for renovation projects including winterization of the stadium. Most of the state’s contribution will come from income taxes from Brewers players, Brewers employees and visiting players.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson has expressed support for the legislation. It is also supported by more than a dozen trade unions, and hospitality and alcohol industry groups.

Lawmakers debated about the relative economic benefit of ensuring the continued presence of the Brewers compared to the size of state funding.

“If the Brewers leave, dollars follow. The dollars that follow means we have less money to invest in all the critical things people think are important,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

Some Democrats, like Rep. Lori Palmeri, D-Oshkosh, described the legislation as “corporate welfare” that uses taxpayer dollars to benefit a team valued at $1.6 billion.

“I think it’s time for us to stand up to corporations, sports and others that issue threats to leave our state if we do not give them what they want,” she said.

Months of negotiation on a stadium funding deal

In his budget proposal earlier this year, Evers proposed $290 million for American Family Field, using money from the state surplus.

Republicans on the state budget committee rejected that plan. They introduced a version of the bill passed Tuesday in September.

The money will go to the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, a body that oversees American Family Field, including its retractable roof and video board.

An earlier version of the bill required a greater contribution of funding from Milwaukee. Lowering that contribution earned the support of several Milwaukee Democrats, including Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee.

“We are the landlords of the stadium. It’s our responsibility to take care of it,” she said. “And … in the words of one of our former presidents, ‘Read my lips, there are no new taxes going into this.’”

Johnson, Milwaukee’s mayor, said last week the proposal has his “full support.”

Evers told reporters on Tuesday he’s “ready to support” the bill as written, according to the Associated Press.