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Former lawmaker: Subsidies have brought, kept teams in Florida

A strong anti-subsidy stance puts Florida House at odds with Senate

Florida capitol building
Florida capitol building

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In 1988, St. Petersburg was going broke finishing a baseball stadium for a team it didn’t have, and meanwhile, the White Sox were using the city as leverage for a new stadium at home.

Then-state Rep. Pete Dunbar devised a plan to offer a tax incentive to lure a team, but only if the team came and started collecting sales taxes.

“It didn’t cost you anything if they didn’t come,” former legislator Dunbar said. “So, it was a field of dreams.”

The White Sox ultimately declined. But teams did come, putting Florida on the map for pro sports. Now, the subsidies are under attack by the House leadership.

“First of all, should we even be in that business?” House Speaker Rep. Richard Corcoran said. “Secondly, do they work?”

The strong anti-subsidy stance is putting the House at odds with the Senate, where Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala said the cash has brought and kept teams here.

“All that gets spent for the stadiums themselves is the incremental increase in the taxes that are collected at the facility from before the construction took place,” said Sen. Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Ten years ago, the program was broadened to include spring training facilities and it’s credited with keeping teams from going to Arizona.

Dunbar said he supports a review of the cash outlays, but he believes they have given Florida major-league status.

“We’ve got the Lombardi Trophy here,” Dunbar said. “The Stanley Cup has been won here.”

The fight over these subsidies and others is shaping up to be one of the major battles of the coming legislative session.

About $13.6 million was given to teams last year. World Golf Village and the International Game and Fish Center have also received incentives from the state.

From the 1993-94 season to the 2016-17 season, the data shows Jacksonville was paid about $2 million a year in subsidies, which adds up to $45,333,424 paid to date, according to a spreadsheet showing all pro sports distributions.