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Wisconsin Assembly approves $545 million in public dollars for Brewers stadium repairs

FILE - American Family Field is seen Sept. 15, 2023, in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin state Assembly was set Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, to approve a Republican-authored plan to spend more than half-a-billion dollars to help cover repairs at the Milwaukee Brewers' stadium.
Morry Gash
FILE - American Family Field is seen Sept. 15, 2023, in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin state Assembly was set Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, to approve a Republican-authored plan to spend more than half-a-billion dollars to help cover repairs at the Milwaukee Brewers' stadium.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin legislators edged closer Tuesday to passing a compromise plan to spend more than half-a-billion dollars in public money to help cover repairs at the Milwaukee Brewers stadium, pushing the proposal through the state Assembly and on to the Senate.

The chamber voted 69-27 to approve the package. The Senate is expected to vote on the plan in November, but senators may attach amendments and send the measure back to the Assembly, the proposal's sponsors said. Both houses must agree on the same version before the plan can go to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers for his signature.

“We've got to get it done," Evers told reporters before the vote. "I’m ready to support it as is.”

The Brewers contend that American Family Field's glass outfield doors, seats and concourses should be replaced and that luxury suites and video scoreboard need upgrades. The stadium's signature retractable roof, fire suppression systems, parking lots, elevators and escalators need work, as well. Team officials have hinted the Brewers might leave Milwaukee if they don't get public assistance for repairs.

The funding plan calls for the state to contribute $411 million and the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to contribute a combined $135 million.

The state money would come in the form of grants. The local contribution would be generated from an existing fee the state Department of Administration charges the city and county for administering local sales taxes. Any fee revenue not used to administer the taxes would go to the stadium.

The Brewers have said they will contribute $100 million to repairs and extend their lease at the stadium through 2050 in exchange for the public money. The lease extension would keep Major League Baseball in its smallest market for at least another 27 years.

Assembly Republicans introduced a bill in September that called for about $610 million in public contributions, with $200 million coming from the city and county. Local leaders balked at the proposal, however, saying the city and county couldn't afford such a sizeable contribution.

The plan's chief sponsor, Rep. Robert Brooks, introduced a compromise last week to reduce the local contribution.

Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers president of business operations, said the Assembly vote Tuesday shows the package has momentum.

“Today’s bipartisan vote creates a path to provide ... resources needed to help keep Major League Baseball in Milwaukee for the next generation,” he said.

Still, approval was far from unanimous. Sixteen Assembly Republicans ultimately voted against the package along with five of the 11 Democrats who represent Milwaukee.

Rep. Ryan Clancy, of Milwaukee, agreed, saying Republicans have created a false sense of urgency. The idea that people wouldn’t find other ways to spend their money and boost the economy if the Brewers left makes no sense, he said. And Rep. Lori Palmeri, of Oshkosh, questioned why lawmakers have left UW-Oshkosh so cash-strapped the school has to lay off 300 workers but can spend hundreds of millions on a sports stadium.

“This is a case of wants versus needs,” Palmeri said. “It's still a corporate welfare bill and I cannot support it.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who hails from Rochester in Racine County, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of American Family Field, warned lawmakers that if the Brewers don’t get public assistance, they’ll leave Milwaukee, putting a huge dent in state income and sales tax revenue.

“It’s simple math,” he said. “If the Brewers leave, dollars follow. ... If another employer was being lured elsewhere, we’d be saying we don’t want to lose that employer.”

Public funding for professional sports facilities is hotly debated across the country. The Brewer’s principal owner, Mark Attanasio, has an estimated net worth of $700 million, according to Yahoo Finance. The team itself is valued at around $1.6 billion, according to Forbes.

Still, groups have registered in support of the public assistance plan, including the Brewers, the Mechanical Contractors Association of Wisconsin, the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions and the Tavern League of Wisconsin, a powerful lobbying force in the Legislature.

Only two groups have registered in opposition: conservative political network Americans for Prosperity, and Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a group that describes itself as working for social and environmental justice.

American Family Field opened in 2001 as Miller Park, replacing aging County Stadium. Construction cost about $392 million and was funded largely through a 0.1% sales tax imposed in Milwaukee County and four surrounding counties.

The run-up to opening the stadium was rough. Republican state Sen. George Petak was recalled from office in 1996 after he switched his vote on the plan from no to yes, underscoring the bitter debate over public financing for professional sports teams. A crane also collapsed during construction at the stadium in 1999, killing three workers.

The stadium was renamed American Family Field in 2021.

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