Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News earlier this week.
As this column discussed last week, Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal is an unserious carnival of leftist fantasy policies and indecent spending. Legislative Republicans have already dismissed Evers’ proposal and are starting from scratch. One spending idea, however, appears to have bipartisan support: spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars to upgrade American Family Field.
The battle over tax funding to build a new stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers was a brawl that left deep scars in the electorate. The five-county sales tax to fund the stadium collected $605 million — about $342 per person — until it finally ended in 2020. While the Brewers have an undeniably positive economic impact, it remains disconcerting for some people to be forced to pay for a place for millionaires to play a game. Such funding, however, may be required.
American Family Field is owned by a state-created public agency named the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District and leased to the Brewers. The current lease runs out in 2030 and requires that the district pay for improvements to the stadium. While there is a contractual obligation for the district to pay for improvements, there is also a business development incentive for the district to make the improvements necessary to convince the Brewers to renew the lease for another couple of decades. If the Brewers do not renew the lease, the taxpayers will be stuck with having to do something with an unused baseball stadium. It is difficult to believe that any other professional baseball team would relocate to Milwaukee if the Brewers leave. The Brewers organization conducted a study and determined that the stadium needs an estimated $428 million in upgrades through 2043. The Wisconsin Department of Administration also conducted a study and estimated the upgrade costs at between $540 million and $604 million. The district currently has about $70 million in a reserve fund that was financed by the excess sales taxes collected before the stadium tax was ended. Governor Evers proposed to use $290 million in cash from the current projected budget surplus. This would give the district $360 million in cash that could be invested to raise sufficient funds for upgrades for the next two decades. His argument is that state taxpayers should pay for the upgrades and that using cash is more economical than financing it with debt.
Republican Speaker Robin Vos seems to agree with Evers that the taxpayers should pay for the improvement, but he has not said how much, what mechanism, or what other conditions may apply. Whereby Evers looks to shovel $290 million in taxpayer dollars into the district with no strings attached, Vos appears to want to structure a more comprehensive deal with the Brewers.
Either way, it is clear that there is bipartisan support, from the politicians, at least, to have the taxpayers upgrade the Brewers’ home field. Should we?
When it comes to spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, we must set sentimentality aside. Wisconsinites love their Brewers, but that does not mean that we should use the violent coercive power of government to extract money from all state citizens to pay for it. Outside of the contractual obligations for the district to pay for upgrades required by Major League Baseball, any further taxpayer funding must be evaluated according to firm financial principles and projections.
Will the taxpayers’ investment provide a return to the people that makes it worthwhile? Are there other options? Could the district sell the stadium to the Brewers or another private group? What is the cost of doing nothing and the Brewers leave? Who is responsible if there are expenses not uncovered by the various studies? At the end of the day, even if the financial projections justify an investment by the taxpayers, can the people really afford it in this economic climate? Sometimes even good investments must be passed over because there are better ways to spend the money.
The taxpayers deserve a transparent, rigorous, detailed financial discussion before lawmakers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a baseball stadium and obligate them to yet more decades of obligation to a private, for-profit company. The fact that Evers and Vos seem to agree on the need for funding the stadium should not be viewed as a bipartisan breakthrough. It should be viewed with skepticism and suspicion.