With some crafty legal maneuvering, it could have almost no impact on the stadium district’s spending.

This isn’t the Miller Park bill that opponents wanted.

For almost 20 years, residents in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee and Racine counties have grumbled and griped about the stadium’s 0.1 percent sales tax. A dream bill might have exempted all counties but Milwaukee, or hastened the tax’s sunset date. Instead, the legislation up for debate contains only a loose set of safeguards, many of which have loopholes the size of Miller Park’s retractable roof.

Perhaps most importantly – and this isn’t saying much – the bill by State Rep. Corey Mason (D-Racine), State Rep. Tom Weatherston (R-Racine), and State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) would require that any project costing more than $500,000 go before the State Building Commission for approval. Until now, the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District has relied solely on its own 13-member board for approval, a panel on which some members have served since 1995.

The State Building Commission – composed of Gov. Scott Walker, several lawmakers and a number of non-voting officials from state government – would give thumbs up or down while having almost no political skin in the game. And it would have few opportunities to do even this. In the past 20 years, only a handful of individual projects have ever exceeded the $500,000 mark. These include the $3.1 million spent on an LED ribbon board in 2006 and a $5.9 million contribution toward the $12 million HD scoreboard unveiled in 2011.

The stadium district’s long-term plans do call for some big-ticket items: $2 million for improved seating in 2021 and $6 million toward new scoreboard purchases in 2020 and 2030. Under the bill, these would go before the Building Commission for “supervision” and approval. But its members would be, in a way, hamstrung. Included in the lease between the Brewers and the district is a requirement that the latter maintain Miller Park “on a par with … at least 75 percent” of all Major League Baseball stadiums. The team invoked this requirement in 2006 to argue for the LED ribbon board, which had become a common sight at baseball fields around the country.

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One can imagine the clause applying to new scoreboards, new seating, and who knows what else. The Building Commission could deny these projects but only at the risk of forcing the district into a lease default, which could encourage the Brewers to pack up and leave town. What legislator – or governor – would want to be responsible for that?

The bill is supposed to cut down on the many small and not-so-small improvements funded by the stadium district over the years. These come out of the “Segregated Reserve Fund,” a pot of money supplied primarily by tax dollars. Past expenses include floor insulation for Brewers executives and replacement flooring for the dugouts, which cost about $84,600 in 2011. At one point, the stadium district paid to research the possibility of installing a one-way observation post in the outfield; it was ultimately determined that glare from the glass would prove too distracting for batters.

Mason, Weatherston, et al, try to get tough by limiting district spending to payments on outstanding construction debt and “routine maintenance.” But then “routine maintenance” is defined as also including any expense “the district is contractually obligated to perform.” In other words, the Brewers and district officials would still be free to cherry-pick improvements under the 75 percent clause and continue on with the SRF program, both of which are laid out in the stadium lease.

The bill does almost nothing to shorten the tax’s sunset date, which has slipped, over the years, from 2014 to 2018 or 2020. The lawmakers would require the district to spend at least 75 percent of its revenue on paying down bonds, but it’s already doing this, as the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has noted. The bill does prohibit the stadium from taking on new debt and thereby extending its operations into perpetuity, a contingency that only the most paranoid, anti-tax opponents are afraid of. The legislation doesn’t speed up the rate at which the stadium is paying down its debt, and neither does it slow down the rate at which it’s setting aside funds for the SRF, which it hopes to fund through 2030 or even 2040, in case the Brewers sign a lease extension.

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“We’re trying to make this building last 40 years for Major League Baseball,” the stadium district’s executive director, Michael Duckett, has said.

To summarize, the district would be submitting to a modicum of state oversight in exchange for operating more or less the same through 2030 or 2040. While the safeguards proposed by Mason and others are meant to ensure that “the tax district is not a slush fund for use by the Milwaukee Brewers,” expect at least a little slopping and slushing to continue.

Or maybe this is all just “inside baseball.”

For more on the Miller Park tax, read our feature story from the September 2014 issue, “The Palace.”

 

Talking Politics is Milwaukee Magazine‘s weekly political column. For more commentary and insight, visit milwaukeemag.com/politics.

 

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