Wisconsin lawmakers are introducing a bill calling for this year to be the last for a sales tax used to pay for building and maintaining Miller Park, a step that stadium officials are saying would be unconstitutional.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican from Racine, joined two fellow lawmakers on Friday in formally seeking other sponsors for legislation that would have the 0.1 percent local sales tax used to finance the construction and maintenance of Miller Park eliminated by the start of 2020. In an interview, Wanggaard said the tax, which went into effect in five southeastern Wisconsin counties in 1996, should have been axed “years ago.”
The tax is now collected in Milwaukee, Racine, Washington, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties. The money it generates is put primarily toward retiring the $290 million worth of construction debt taken on to pay for the stadium, as well as for maintenance.
The use of that revenue is overseen by an entity called Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, which at one point had sought to have the sales tax phased out by 2014. Those plans were abandoned in 2012, though, when revenue collections were still recovering from the recent recession. A subsequent consultant’s report, released last March, found the stadium district should be in a financial position to end the tax by late 2019 or early 2020.
Wanggaard said it’s high time the tax went away. Besides eliminating the tax, Wanggaard’s bill would prevent the district board, starting after June 30, from taking on any obligations it couldn’t pay off in full by the end of the year.
“It was not intended to be a forever stamp,” he said. “It has just continued to be a thing that has re-purposed itself. This has got to end. People are still wound up about it.”
In a letter sent to Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District’s board of director on Friday, Mike Duckett, executive director of the district, pushed back against Wanggaard’s proposal. He wrote that setting a hard deadline could undermine the district’s ability both to collect revenue to meet its outstanding debt payments and to set money aside for future payments.
What’s more, setting a sunset date could amount to a violation of the district’s contract with bond holders, Duckett said. A provision of the law establishing the sales tax stipulates that state lawmakers must wait until the Miller Park district’s bond obligations are met before limiting or altering the powers of the district board. Duckett warned that even the mere “threat” of a money shortfall could also affect the market value of the district’s bonds.
For these reasons, Duckett wrote, the adoption of a law ending the sales tax would most “likely” subject the district or state to a lawsuit from bond holders or the bond insurer, MBIA Insurance. Duckett noted this isn’t the first time lawmakers have considered repealing the stadium tax. Those previous attempts, he said, all failed for legal reasons.
To support his case, Duckett cited a legal opinion issued in 2006 by the law firm Foley & Lardner. Foley then warned that setting a firm date for ending the sales tax would violate the impairment clauses found in both the Wisconsin and U.S. constitutions, which prohibit elected officials from passing laws that override contracts.
Duckett said those legal interpretations remain valid and that the district wouldn’t hire lawyers to fight the latest tax-repeal bill because doing so would “add little new insight to an unfortunate, recurring issue.”
“The proposed 2019 Bill is very similar to previously proposed legislation regarding the Miller Park District,” Duckett wrote. “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.”
Wanggaard, however, dismissed this argument on Friday.
“That’s a bunch of garbage,” Wanggaard said. “They can go and raise tens of millions of dollars on naming rights. There comes a point where I think that the taxpayer needs to get off the hook.”
Wanggaard said he has not reached out to stadium-district officials about his bill, which he says differs very little from his previous attempt to have the tax repealed. He said he introduced his last tax-sunset bill too late in the state’s legislative session, giving lawmakers too little time to consider it. Wanggaard said a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers support ending the stadium sales tax, and that officials at the Miller Park district shouldn’t be surprised by what’s happening.
“They’ve known this was coming for years,” he said. “They’ve continued to be successful in pushing it back.”