TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – An unused pool of money for stadium upgrades, deemed "corporate welfare" by critics, faces possible elimination in the Florida Senate.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, filed a measure (SB 236) on Tuesday that would repeal the 2014 Sports Development Program, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott and made available $13 million a year for stadium work.
The money, which comes from sales taxes, has been unsuccessfully sought for improvements at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Daytona International Speedway, Hard Rock Stadium in Miami-Dade County and construction of a soccer stadium in Orlando.
"The Sports Development Program was ill-conceived and based on the false premise that these capital improvements are a boon for economic development," Lee said in a prepared statement. "Professional teams are vying for taxpayer funds to pay for largely superficial facility upgrades, many of which are already in progress or completed."
The 2014 legislation, pushed by current Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, was intended to decrease the lobbying lawmakers faced from owners of sports facilities seeking sales-tax dollars for construction and upgrades.
"This is not a giveaway of any dollars," Latvala, R-Clearwater, said Tuesday. "The only dollars that we would give back, in any way shape or form, are the tax dollars that are created by whatever improvement they make."
In maintaining his support for the stadium legislation, Latvala pointed to other economic-incentive programs --- through the public-private agencies Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, and for the film industry --- that have come under a growing fire in the past few months.
"We can pull a blanket over our head and crawl under it and quit competing with the rest of the world, and there seems to be some folks that are advocating that," Latvala said.
Latvala said he hadn't talked to Lee about the proposal.
Lee was initially recorded as voting for the 2014 legislation. But he later changed the vote to a "nay." His office said Tuesday that another senator incorrectly pushed the button on Lee's desk to record the initial vote and that Lee always opposed the bill.
Current House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, was among 27 representatives who opposed the legislation. Corcoran gave his support to Lee's repeal proposal on Tuesday.
"Florida has the tax environment, the weather, and the fans to support multiple sports franchises without raiding taxpayer pockets," Corcoran said in a prepared statement. "Those who own the game should not be able to take money from those who don't attend the game."
Also Tuesday, a spokesman for the group conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity-Florida called the 2014 stadium legislation "a failed handout program to sports team owners."
"We hope both chambers continue to examine the value, or lack thereof, of programs like this that rob taxpayers of valuable resources that should otherwise be used to benefit the hard-working families of Florida," Americans for Prosperity-Florida spokesman Andres Malave said in an email. "Removing these failed incentive programs, coupled with accountability measures like those enacted by Speaker Corcoran to tie spending items to individual members, will hopefully serve as a deterrent to wasteful budget turkeys in the future."
The Sports Development Program law requires the state Department of Economic Opportunity to evaluate the financial viability of each application.
However, the House blocked efforts in 2015 to discuss applications from Daytona International Speedway, the Miami Dolphins' home now called Hard Rock Stadium, EverBank Field in Jacksonville and a Major League Soccer stadium in Orlando.
Last year, proposals for the Dolphins, EverBank Field and Daytona International Speedway didn't advance after qualifying in the state agency review.
For the current year, the only application has come from the Buccaneers Football Stadium Limited Partnership for Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
The partnership is seeking $1 million a year, for at least 10 years, for already-started renovations that are now projected at between $120 million and $140 million.
The team is paying for most of the work, while $28.8 million is coming through sales taxes in Hillsborough County.
In announcing plans to try to repeal the law, Lee said, "History has shown that team owners will make these investments without hard-working families having to foot the bill."
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and the speedway both covered estimated $400 million upgrades that were underway during the state agency reviews of their applications.
After the 2015 rejection, Orlando City Soccer Club owner Flavio Augusto da Silva announced plans to privately pay for the construction of a 25,500-seat downtown stadium, which is still underway at an estimated cost of $155 million.