GOP Brewers bill removes Milwaukee from stadium board
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Republican plan to use more than $600 million in taxpayer money to fund renovations at American Family Field also removes Milwaukee and Milwaukee County from having a say on the board that decides which ballpark projects get approved.
The stadium is technically owned and operated by the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, a state-created agency that came into existence as part of the 1995 law that paved the way for construction of what was long known as Miller Park, now American Family Field.
The district's board held a regular meeting Tuesday afternoon. Board chairman Tim Sheehy summarized the GOP bill to members and said he hoped state leaders would act with urgency because the board needed to know how to best use the $71 million it has remaining in its fund.
"Think of a homeowner. I'm gonna be in my home for seven years," Sheehy said in an interview after the meeting. "Am I gonna repair my roof? Probably not. If I'm gonna be here for 27 years, I want that roof repaired."
The Brewers' lease ends in 2030, but the team has the option of extended the lease through 2040. The district board has about $7 million in cash on hand, and it has that $71 million in total reserves through 2040.
Both the team and state leaders agree that's not enough to cover maintenance and renovations over that time period. The district had been funded by a five-county 0.01% sales tax that generated more than $600 million before being sunset in 2020.
The bill Republican lawmakers introduced Monday would deposit more than $700 million into the district's accounts. The state would provide $411 million, the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County would provide a combined $202.5 million and the Brewers would contribute $100 million.
Bill overhauls who's on stadium board
The bill would also make sweeping changes to the makeup of the stadium district's board. Currently, it's comprised of 13 members: Six appointed by the governor, two by Milwaukee County, one by the city of Milwaukee, and one each from Ozaukee, Racine, Waukesha and Washington counties, which paid into the five-county tax.
Under the GOP proposal, the board would be reduced to nine members: Four appointed by the governor, two appointed by the Assembly speaker, two by the Senate majority leader, and one appointed by the governor from a list of candidates provided by the Brewers.
Currently, the stadium board has representatives from Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, as well as the other surrounding counties in the original five-county sales tax.— A.J. Bayatpour (@AJBayatpour) September 19, 2023
Under the GOP bill, there’d be no local representation. The legislature would take new power to appoint members https://t.co/P1MOwLMW2m pic.twitter.com/mCvV5nYs4n
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson slammed the proposed change while talking to reporters Monday.
"The city would not get a voice in the governance of the stadium district board. That's taxation without representation," Johnson said. "And that's, I think, something that needs to be addressed in the bill."
After Tuesday's board meeting, Sheehy said he agreed with the criticism.
"Clearly, with participation by the city and county, they need to have representation on the board," he said. "And I'm hopeful that the final legislation will reflect that."
Larger questions about the bill and the board's role
Robert Baumann, an economics professor at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, has studied publicly-financed stadium deals. He, and scores of other economists, have criticized claims that such deals provide a return that covers taxpayers' investment.
In an interview Tuesday, Baumann said both the GOP bill and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' earlier plan to provide nearly $300 million in state money amounted to "corporate welfare."
Baumann maintained the public was picking up too much of the tab, considering Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio bought the team for $223 million in 2004 and has seen the team's estimated value rise to $1.6 billion, according to a Forbes report earlier this year.
Accounting for inflation, Baumann estimated Attanasio's asset has appreciated by at least $600 million, the amount taxpayers would provide under the Republican stadium renovations plan.
"Obviously, the Brewers and their local identity is something valuable to consider, but I would say it's also important to consider who you're giving the money to," Baumann said.
Regarding the board, Baumann said sports teams in publicly-owned facilities don't necessarily have a traditional landlord-tenant relationship, and he questioned whether the stadium board would defer to the Brewers on issues like the future of the American Family Field's parking lots.
Some local leaders have pushed for the state to turn over some of the land currently used for lots so it can turn into new taxable developments that help the city and county pay for its share of stadium upgrades.
A report funded by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, of which Sheehy is the chair, found 62% of the people who attend Brewers games come from outside Milwaukee County.
The Brewers have said they want to keep the lots as they are, citing the tailgating culture around the park. Sheehy said future development made sense but didn't see it as imminent because there haven't been any studies on the subject, let alone a developer expressing interest in the idea.
"I don't know what the market is for development," Sheehy said. "It's easy to talk about it, but with interest rates where they are, it's not easy to find somebody who will come in and develop property around here in concert with a baseball park."
Sheehy said he also didn't support the idea of pressuring the Brewers into doing something they didn't want to do.
"I think that's not a hostile discussion. That's a discussion in concert with the Brewers and how they see their future developing here," he said.
Baumann said Milwaukee officials and their representatives in Madison should hold firm on both the board and the land. He said while the team's ultimate leverage is moving the franchise to another city, the Brewers might well be reluctant to leave a market where they know there's robust support.
"You have more bargaining power than you're acting like," Baumann said. "The team, typically, treats these negotiations and these interactions with a municipality, like this parking lot story, as if they have all the chips."