MADISON – The Miller Park tax started with a debate in Madison more than 23 years ago. Now that the tax is in the bottom of the ninth of its existence, it might end with another debate in Madison.
Legislators in the state Senate and Assembly are proposing a bill that would definitively end the 0.1 percent sales tax at the end of this year.
“This will make it finite,” said state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine. “This will make it so there’s a definite day that they have to stop incurring debt, that would be June 30, and they have to have all of their bills and debts aligned so they can all be paid off by December 31. Because they’re not getting any more revenue after December 31, it’s done, they get nothing.”
The Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District (also known as the Miller Park District), has already projected the end of the tax to occur either this year or early next year.
The 0.1 sales tax is collected from Racine, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties to help pay to major capital projects along with paying down the debt used to build Miller Park and have enough money to pay the lease of the property until roughly 2040.
Wanggaard, along with state Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee and state Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Caledonia, are the elected officials pushing to the end of the tax.
Despite not speaking to anyone from the Miller Park District, Wanggaard said he is confident the legislation will pass this session.
“They have known for years that this pot of gold was going to end,” Wanggaard said. “The players continue to get their salaries increased and there’s been hundreds of millions of dollars paid out in salaries over this 22-year period. You don’t see those guys taking less money or putting money into the place that creates their salary.”
The Miller Park District has no control over operations and salaries of the Milwaukee Brewers, but the team does pay $1.2 million per year in rent to the district.
Wanggaard said the $569 million paid to the district is enough.
“I don’t wish the Brewers any ill will, I think they’re a great team,” Wanggaard said. “We want them to stay here, we want to keep them here, but I think they can start funding some of their own stuff, too.”
The Miller Park District has seen this pitch before.
In 2005, legislators proposed a similar bill which then-Secretary of Administration Stephen Bablitch sent a letter to the Joint Committee on Finance, saying that the legislation “in its present form would be unconstitutional in violation of both the Wisconsin Constitution and the United States Constitution.”
“Passage of such legislation could cause future bond investors to place less reliance on the laws of Wisconsin to protect contracts between bond issuers and bond investors,” Bablitch said in the letter.
Both the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions have language prohibiting the passage of laws that could impair the obligations of a contract.
Mike Duckett, executive director of the Miller Park District, sent an email to the district’s Board of Directors on Friday, saying the proposed bill “both the mandating of a fixed sales tax sunset date and the mandating of a lease term extension would clearly violate the U.S. Constitution and the Wisconsin Constitution.”
If the bill passes, Duckett said, the district is concerned that “the threat of a funding shortfall to meet future bond payments may result in changes in valuation of the bonds in the secondary bond market. These outcomes from the enactment of the proposed 2019 bill would likely result in litigation being commenced against the district and/or the State of Wisconsin by bondholders and/or the bond issuer.”
The district is expected to get a report from PFM Financial Advisors in March that would state more definitely whether or not the tax will be done by the end of this year or go into 2020.
Duckett said the position of the district is:
“The proposed 2019 Bill is very similar to previously proposed legislation regarding the Miller Park District. The previously proposed legislation was found to be unconstitutional in that it violated the terms and conditions of the state pledge, bond contracts and other legal agreements. Because the District feels the proposed 2019 Bill will also be found to be unlawful and unconstitutional, it would not be appropriate or necessary for the District to comment further before the proposed legislation is properly vetted and considered by state agencies, state legal counsel and state legislative leaders.”
Back and forth with legislators
Duckett sent the same email to both Wanggaard and Carpenter regarding the legislation as was sent to the district’s board.
Carpenter replied by saying he hopes the district “has long-range plans about the future of Miller Park. I don’t think the public will have the appetite for spending taxpayer dollars for the construction of a new baseball park.”
“With the delayed sunset of the five-county sales tax coming to an end, now is the time to begin a public discussion of what the future holds for our publicly funded Miller Park,” Carpenter said. “I’m sorry you view state legislators even proposing a bill calling for a definite sunset date of the Miller Park sales tax as ‘an unfortunate reoccurring issue’ and that it will cause you to ‘expend significant time and resources on this ill-advised legislation.’ I view it simply as me doing my job by proposing legislation on behalf of my constituent’s wishes.”
Wanggaard said he will use the previous legislation as a guide “to ensure the bill passes.”
“Your opposition to the aspect of the bill which prohibits the district from incurring debts that cannot be paid off by the end of 2019 provides evidence of the necessity of the legislation,” Wanggaard said in an email to Duckett. “If the district were serious about ending the tax in late 2019 or early 2020 ensuring that new obligations would be paid off by December 31, 2019 would not be an issue.”
Duckett responded to Wanggaard saying the district’s “objectives regarding the Miller Park sales tax are fully consistent with your legislative intent. That is, the Miller Park District Board of Directors is firmly committed to protecting the taxpayers and retiring the sales tax as quickly as possible. Clearly, that is also the intent of your proposed legislation.”
Duckett goes on to say “please don’t view the district’s response as ‘opposition’ to your proposed legislative intent.”
“The Miller Park District Board of Directors would support any effort to retire the Miller Park sales tax as quickly as possible, provided that the district is not placed in a position of violating the terms and conditions of existing legal agreements and contracts,” Duckett said. “The Miller Park District is ‘opposed’ to any legislation that would force the district to violate the terms and conditions of existing legal agreements and contracts — which could spawn claims and/or lawsuits against the District and/or state (and, in effect, the very taxpayers we are all committed to protect).”
“I don’t wish the Brewers any ill will, I think they’re a great team. We want them to stay here, we want to keep them here but I think they can start funding some of their own stuff, too.” State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine