Stadium Facelift Roils Wisconsin Politics

MADISON, Wi. -- Green Bay Packer politics continue to reverberate in Wisconsin, where a GOP lawmaker was ousted Nov. 7 despite his support for renovating the stadium of the state's most cherished sports team.

The push by pro football's Packers to renovate Lambeau Field played a role in a tumultuous election-year session of the Legislature, two referendum votes in the county that ecompassses Green Bay, and recently the defeat of GOP state Sen. Gary Drzewiecki.

And the saga isn't over.

That's because the 2001 session of the Legislature likely will feature tussles over proposals to help fund parking and street repairs around the renovated home of the Packers (about $9.1 million) and help for updating the home of the University of Wisconsin football Badgers (about $10 million).

Each item, although financially modest and backed by popular GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson, will need approval of the new Legislature, but it, like the current one, will be split along partisan lines. Democrats will run the state Senate and Republicans the state Assembly.

If Wisconsin's recent political past is any indication, passage of either proposal won't be easy and won't follow partisan lines. Many legislators on both sides of the political aisle have taken a strong position against direct state aid for stadiums. Some wiggle room could develop if the answer is "yes" to these two questions:

1) Isn't the road improvement money for Lambeau-related projects similiar to what other parts of the state have gotten for other civic projects?

2) Isn't the money for the University of Wisconsin stadium different because it involves a public university facility that also plays host to high school championship games?Even if those distinctions are made, the shadow of Milwaukee's Miller Park, set to open a year later than scheduled next spring, looms large whenever money and stadiums become the subject of legislative debate. Ever since the Milwaukee pro baseball Brewers came to the state looking for aid several years ago, state politicians have been split on the question of public money for sports stadiums.

The Brewers got their subsidy in the form of a Milwaukee-area sales tax boost and $36 million in road improvement money. But a GOP state senator, George Petak of Racine, was recalled from office in 1996 for his vote in favor of the sales tax, the only lawmaker recalled in state history. That episode helped bring to power the man Republicans love to hate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison.

Then came the Green Bay Packers' proposal for a stadium facelift. One of the NFL's most storied franchises should have had an easy time of it, if fans and legislators voted only with their hearts. But it was much more complicated than that.

After a big lobbying effort, which cost an estimated $1.4 million, and a lot of legislative maneuvering, the Packers got the legislature to agree to a Brown County vote on a sales tax boost. But $9.1 million in road improvement money, initially proposed by Thompson, never made it to the governor's desk. It was cut out in the GOP-run Assembly to appease rural Republicans, among others, and blocked by Chvala in the Democratic-run state Senate.

In September, after a summer-long debate that divided families, Brown County residents voted 53 percent to 47 percent to help their Packers renovate aging Lambeau Field -- home of the "frozen tundra'' and stage for many NFL highlights over the years. The $295 million renovation project, due to begin in January, is slated for completion in September 2003. Then on Nov. 7, Brown County voters were asked to weigh in again -- this time on an advisory referendum to start the process leading to a new name for Lambeau Field.

The fall debate was muted; in fact the Packers, not enthused about renaming Lambeau Field, sat it out. Citizens, worn out by the tension surrounding the September vote, OK'd the selling of naming rights. They approved this referendum by the same margin as the tax vote:

"Shall naming rights of Lambeau Field be sold for the purposes of reducing stadium debt, providing for public works improvements, adding revenues to further secure the Packer football team in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and ending the half-percent countywide sales tax as soon as possible."

Bob Harlan, the Packers president, said the team is much more comfortable with the idea now and will work to conclude a naming rights deal after a vote in which "people were voting their pocketbook against tradition."

The Packers and city officials, who run Lambeau Field, are hoping to sell the naming rights for about $120 million over 20 years. They'll roughly split the revenue if a deal is made. Proposals could be sought as early as January 2002.

But while the naming rights proposal gained citizen approval with surprising ease, the stadium controversy claimed another political victim. Republican senator Gary Drzewiecki, of Pulaski was defeated in his re-election bid mostly because of the stadium issue. Drzewiecki's defeat helped Democrats widen their margin in the new state Senate to 18-15. Drzewiecki was one of only three incumbent legislators to lose on Nov. 7.

Drzewiecki's opponent, Brown County board member Dave Hansen, accused Drzewiecki of being uninvolved when it came to getting direct state aid for Brown County or broadening the base of the Lambeau tax. Drzewiecki had helped the Milwaukee-area get direct state aid, so why didn't he "lift a finger'' for his home county? asked the Hansen campaign.supporters.

Drzewiecki responded, in a fashion, airing an ad that touted his work on reducing state taxes. But he never really tackled the issue that had dogged him for months.