It was Wisconsin’s smallest and most hated tax.
The five-county baseball stadium sales tax attracted enmity far out of proportion to the single penny it added to a $10 purchase. By the time it ended in March 2020, getting rid of it had become a bipartisan political imperative.
A Milwaukee Magazine analysis shows the stadium sales tax would have collected almost $165 million if it had remained in effect from April 2020 through August of this year. If it continued through 2038, the combination of projected sales tax revenue and current stadium district reserves would add up to more than the high-end $698 million estimate for upgrades that the team says would be needed to keep American Family Field in top-notch condition through 2050.
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Milwaukee County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman says the tax never should have been allowed to end before all the stadium’s needs were met. Wasserman, who voted for the tax as a Democratic legislator in 1995, says asking for more money now is “an insult to (then-Gov.) Tommy Thompson and everyone else” who braved public opposition to fund the ballpark.
But the idea of collecting an unpopular tax for 18 years past its sunset date would be so politically unpalatable to current legislators as to be unrealistic. Instead, elected officials and team leaders are negotiating on a bailout plan that could shift public money away from other state and local government services, such as schools, parks, buses and libraries. A new proposal could surface in the Legislature as early as this week.
The saga of the stadium sales tax provides insight into the politics of taxation and of taxpayer-funded sports facilities.
Consultants hired by the Brewers estimate the ballpark needs $426 million in improvements – $33.5 million more than its original construction cost – if the team stays another 20 years. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed paying for the upgrades with $290 million from the state’s $7 billion surplus, figuring that the combination of that appropriation and $70 million from the stadium district’s reserves would grow with interest to $446 million (including $20 million for inflation) by 2043.
The Republican-controlled Legislature rejected Evers’ plan. Rep. Rob Brooks (R-Saukville) is now working on a deal to provide $698 million through 2050: $463 million from the state, $135 million total from the Milwaukee city and county governments and $100 million from the team.
District board president Tim Sheehy says both the Evers and Brooks targets are based on supplementing district reserves with about $24 million a year in new revenue, plus inflation, but Evers’ plan would cover 13 years, from 2031 through 2043, while Brooks’ plan would cover 27 years, from 2024 through 2050, plus borrowing costs.
The state’s share would come from income taxes paid by Brewers players, other team employees and visiting teams – redirecting current revenue now used to fund other budget priorities. Sheehy says that’s money the state wouldn’t have without the Brewers.
Meanwhile, the city and county would be hit with the stadium bills just after winning new sales tax authority and increased state aid to avoid a disastrous “fiscal cliff.” The County Board has voted unanimously to oppose spending any county tax dollars on the stadium, and at least one-third of the Common Council has taken a similar position against city contributions.
Supervisor Steve Taylor, who authored the county resolution, says his fellow Republicans should have accepted Evers’ proposal to use the surplus. Pointing to the county’s billion-dollar facilities maintenance backlog and its need to replace its deteriorating Safety Building to provide state-mandated criminal justice services, Taylor adds, “If the state builds our (new) Safety Building for $480 million, maybe we’d have money to spend on the Brewers.”
But reworking state and local budgets wouldn’t be on the table if the five-county sales tax was still in place.
Milwaukee Magazine used revenue collected by the 0.5% Milwaukee, Ozaukee and Washington county sales taxes, divided by five, to estimate how much each county would have contributed to the 0.1% stadium tax. That estimate shows those three counties combined consistently accounted for 61% to 62% of the five-county total each year from 2014 through 2019.
If those three counties’ share remained at 61%, the stadium tax would have produced $24.9 million in the last nine months of 2020, $37.9 million in 2021, $40.5 million in 2022 and $27.9 million in the first eight months of this year, or $164.9 million total from April 2020 through August 2023. And if the tax going forward would bring in an average of $30.7 million a year – the average from 2014 through 2019 – revenue would grow to $639 million by the end of 2038, with the district’s current $70 million bringing the total to $709 million.
Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Common Council President Jose Perez declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations; Milwaukee County Board Chair Marcelia Nicholson was unavailable for comment; and Brooks and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Tax funding to replace the old County Stadium was contentious throughout the early 1990s. Then as now, the team’s ownership never made any direct public threats to leave if it didn’t get a new ballpark. But whenever business, government or news media leaders emerged from closed-door discussions with then-owner Bud Selig, they warned that rejecting a stadium deal could cost Milwaukee the Brewers.
In 1995, Wisconsin officials floated what they thought would be a relatively painless method of public funding: a new state lottery game with proceeds dedicated to paying for the stadium. In a statewide advisory referendum that spring, voters shot down the lottery idea by an overwhelming 64 percent to 36 percent.
Despite that opposition, elected officials heeded the business community’s admonitions that the metropolitan economy would suffer if the Brewers left. With the cost of a new stadium estimated at $250 million, Thompson and GOP legislative leaders proposed raising $160 million through a five-county sales tax, matched by $90 million from the Brewers. That set the public share of the ballpark at 64 percent – coincidentally the same proportion as public opposition to even a lottery-funded stadium.
Among the five counties – Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington and Racine – resistance was particularly heavy in Racine County. The Racine County Board voted unanimously to oppose the stadium district tax. All three of the county’s state representatives were against it when the Assembly approved the plan, 52-47. And as the Senate debated late into the night, then-Sen. George Petak (R-Racine) was in the opposition when the plan went down twice on 16-15 votes.
Petak had promised to shield his constituents from the tax. But he was wavering, fearing that the Brewers would leave. Sheehy, who was the chief lobbyist for the ballpark plan as president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, recalls walking out of Petak’s office in the early-morning hours of Oct. 6, 1995, as the senator’s aides pleaded with Petak not to change his vote, warning he would be recalled if he did.
Nonetheless, Petak switched, allowing the bill to barely pass on the third try. “Without his vote, we would have lost major-league baseball,” Sheehy says.
Eight months later, Petak became the first Wisconsin legislator to be recalled, losing his seat to then-Rep. Kimberly Plache, a Racine Democrat who had voted against the plan. Thompson’s Republicans lost control of the Senate as a result.
As the cost of the stadium and related infrastructure grew to $392.5 million, not counting borrowing costs, the newly created stadium district’s share rose to $255.9 million, supplemented by contributions from the state, city and Milwaukee County.
Meanwhile, the Brewers paid their share with about $40 million from selling stadium naming rights to what was then Miller Brewing Co., plus $50 million in loans, including $15 million from the city and $14 million from the MMAC. A state audit later found the team was paying its debts with money that it was receiving from the district to cover Miller Park maintenance expenses. That ended when the district assumed responsibility for repaying the loans in 2002.
By contrast, the Milwaukee Bucks’ current and former owners agreed in 2016 to pay half the estimated $500 million cost of building Fiserv Forum, and they covered all cost overruns when the price tag rose to $524.1 million, for a total team investment of $274.1 million.
Still haunted by Petak’s fate, lawmakers wouldn’t even consider a sales tax for the public share of the basketball arena. They had authorized a 0.5% sales tax for Lambeau Field upgrades in 2000, but they limited it to a single county and required Brown County voters to approve it in a referendum. That tax ended in 2015.
By law, the baseball stadium tax was supposed to end after the district had paid off the bonds issued to build the ballpark and after it had saved up enough “to meet any maintenance or capital improvement obligations.” Included in the Brewers’ lease is a provision requiring the district to keep the stadium’s amenities in the top 25% of major-league ballparks.
Initial estimates projected the tax would end in 2014, but stagnant revenue growth delayed the sunset, to the bipartisan impatience of suburban lawmakers. After the district board declared in March 2019 that it intended to retire the tax in one year, the state locked in the decision with a law requiring the tax to sunset no later than Aug. 31, 2020, whether the district had met its obligations or not.
But whether the district could meet its obligations was another question. Consultants told the district board that its reserves would be sufficient. The Brewers didn’t publicly object, but commissioned their own study, which wasn’t done until 2022.
In January 2022, Rick Schlesinger, Brewers president for business operations, warned the board that the $87 million then in the district’s reserves might not be enough to pay for everything the stadium needs if the team exercises its options to extend its lease through 2040. That set off the current debate.
Wasserman says it was “completely incompetent” that all involved “didn’t do their due diligence” before ending the stadium tax. He says he and other lawmakers were promised the tax would pay for the ballpark “in perpetuity.”
Sheehy, who was named board chair in 2021, says his predecessor, Summerfest CEO Don Smiley, and other board members acted on the best information available at the time. He says he never promised anyone in 1995 that the tax would suffice for the life of the ballpark, only for the life of the Brewers’ lease. The law’s language doesn’t specifically support either interpretation.
Through a spokesman, Schlesinger declined an interview request but released a written statement noting the team was “willing to make a sizable contribution” to stadium upgrades. Under Brooks’ plan, the Brewers’ $100 million contribution would be slightly more than one-seventh of the American Family Field upgrade cost.
By contrast, the Bucks will be responsible for the full cost of any future improvements to Fiserv Forum. The Green Bay Packers contributed just $20.6 million of the $295.2 million price tag for the first major upgrade of Lambeau Field, but the football team has paid the entire $312 million and $200 million, respectively, for two big improvement projects since then.
Sheehy says the three teams aren’t comparable, because of differences in their league revenue structures, facility requirements and valuations at the time of each deal.
However, GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has cited the Fiserv Forum funding setup as precedent for requiring city and county contributions. In that case, the city paid $47 million in infrastructure costs, while the state cut the county’s shared revenue payments by $4 million a year for 20 years to cover an $80 million county contribution.
Wasserman and Taylor question why the baseball stadium tax was spread over five counties, but the suburban counties aren’t being asked to contribute to the upgrades. Sheehy says he supports regional funding, but lawmakers and suburban officials wouldn’t agree to that.
If the other four counties aren’t part of the new deal, it’s possible the 13-member district board could be restructured, Sheehy added. Leaders of the other counties now appoint one board member each, compared with two for the Milwaukee County executive, one for the mayor and six for the governor.
One thing that hasn’t changed since the original stadium debate is the primary argument for spending public money on a sports facility: The fear that the team will leave town without it.
“Plenty of markets would take the Brewers in a heartbeat,” Sheehy says.