Green Bay Packers Seeking Legislative Touchdown

 

MADISON -- The Green Bay Packers last went to the Super Bowl in 1998. They say if fans want them to go back more often, the answer is a renovated stadium that will provide the team more money to buy on-field talent. "We're fighting for survival," says Green Bay Packers President Bob Harlan.

But the team's next road to the Super Bowl first goes through the state Capitol, where lawmakers remain rattled by a 1995 vote to build a brand-new stadium for the state's pro baseball Milwaukee Brewers.

While Packers' players get organized under new head Coach Mike Sherman, the management team of the NFL's only community-owned franchise -- with help from Packers stars past and present -- is trying to convince taxpayers and public officials to endorse a $295 million stadium renovation plan.

The plan hinges on selling lawmakers, Brown County board members and county taxpayers on a 0.5 percent hike in the county' sales tax to finance $160 million in public bonding. Brown County surrounds Green Bay and benefits most from the Packers.

The state sales tax is 5 percent, so the total tax would be 5.5 percent if the surcharge is approved.

The city of Green Bay owns Lambeau Field, the third-oldest in the NFL but a shrine to many pro football fans who recall the glory years of the 1960s, when legendary coach Vince Lombardi strode the sidelines. Plans call for a renovation of 42-year-old Lambeau Field in time for the 2003 season. The renovation aims to make Lambeau a year-round convention and tourist attraction. The sales tax surcharge won't happen without a voter referendum -- something taxpayers weren't offered in 1995, when baseball's Milwaukee Brewers received a controversial public subsidy for their $400 million ballpark. Harlan says there's no back up plan. "We don't intend to lose," Harlan said at the highly orchestrated unveiling of the plan on Saturday Jan. 22 in Green Bay.

Gov. Tommy Thompson was there to offer his support. He joined former Packer greats Willie Davis and Bart Starr as Lambeau renovation backers. In his State of the State address on Jan. 26, Thompson strongly urged approval, saying he could not imagine a future Wisconsin "without a strong Packer team."

"The Green Bay Packers have come to us with an exciting and well-thought-out plan for their future viability. They largely ask us to let them reach solutions in their community. Therefore, the Legislature should quickly and decisively move this plan forward and let the people of Brown County decide on their piece," he said.

"Stadium issues aren't easy and they're not fun," Thompson told the legislators. "It's like being on the one-yard-line, down by 3 points and deciding whether to go for the win or settle for the tie. In Wisconsin, we always go for the win."

Campaigns for public subsidies for sports teams have increasingly occupied local and state legislators across the country as U.S. baseball and football teams have embarked on a building boom. Fed up with soaring ticket prices, multi-millionaire athletes who fail to return the loyalty of the fans and team owners ready to relocate at the drop of a hat, the public has become increasingly resistant to such appeals.

In Wisconsin, the Brewers stadium experience looms large over the coming Packers vote. A 1995 vote of the legislature created a special taxing district in the southeastern part of the state placed a 0.1 percent sales tax surcharge on residents of five counties, including Milwaukee. The stadium, Miller Park, was set to open this season. But a 1999 construction accident killed three workers and delayed the opening for at least a year.

Lawmakers have other reasons to be skittish. A GOP state senator who voted for the regional sales tax surcharge for the ballpark became the first state lawmaker recalled from office. That led to a Democratic takeover of the state Senate. (Democrats control the Senate; Republicans control the Assembly and the governor's office.)

The Packers have several factors in their favor going into the legislative fight:

  • They are community owned and have statewide allegience.
  • Harlan and other team officials went out of their way to touch base with lawmakers before unveiling their renovation plan.
  • The team, which claims it lost money two years in a row, agreed to open its books to the respected Legislative Audit Bureau.
  • The Packers recommended that the renovation of Lambeau Field include the addition of more seats so that 4,000 tickets can be sold on a game-by-game basis to non-season ticket-holders. Packers home games have been sold out since 1960. Harlan has left open the possibility that Brown County residents will get the first shot at these tickets, but he's not sure how that would work.
  • The team hit season-ticket-holders with a stiff one-time user fee ($2,000 per seat over a number of years) that will generate $92.5 million for renovation plus a $24 million reserve to pay for cost overruns). This move also could break up some family ticket monopolies.

"The Packers enjoy a love affair with this state," said Rep. John Gard, R-Peshtigo, a northeastern Wisconsin representative who co-chairs the state's budget committee. The referendum could be held in September, at the beginning of the season and in concert with the scheduled fall primary, if the Packers plan flies.

There are some potential pitfalls, however:

  • Brown County lawmakers, recalling the rejection of similar sales tax boosts before, are being very cautious. Rep. Carol Kelso, R-Green Bay, said she'll probably try to expand the sales tax to other nearby counties but gives the idea little chance of succeeding. Conservative Sen. Alan Lasee, R-De Pere, has been opposed from the start and predicts the proposal will be defeated at the polls.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison, who opposed the Brewers stadium, is generally sympathetic to the Packer renovation plan, but says $9.1 million in state transportation money for stadium-area highway improvements is in trouble already. He's pushing for special Packers license plates as a way for state taxpayers to voluntarily contribute.

The Packers plan calls for more public money than private money -- about $169.1 million public to $125.9 million private. And some anti-tax Republicans aren't convinced the Packers need that much help. That's likely one reason Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha, angling to become governor in 2002, is forming an Assembly study committee before taking a definitive stand.

 
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