TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - For the past two decades, Florida taxpayers have paid millions to turn the state into a sports mecca.
The money has paid for repairs, renovations and construction of stadiums and arenas that are home to professional football, hockey, baseball and basketball teams. The state also has shelled out money to spruce up ballparks used by Major League Baseball teams for spring training.
The total so far: close to $300 million since 1994.
The list of those getting help -- and the amount spent by the state -- could get even larger this year if state legislators and Gov. Rick Scott agree.
Bills moving in this year's session could help the Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars renovate their stadiums. One bill would help build a soccer stadium, probably in Orlando, and other legislation would pay for improvements to Daytona International Speedway.
"I think it's exciting that the economy is starting to swing back such that we are seeing the opportunities to have new facilities constructed or renovated," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs and sponsor of the bill to bring Major League Soccer back to the state. The Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, which played in Fort Lauderdale, both folded after the 2001 season.
But already, pressure is building against some of the bills, especially a push for the state to pay $3 million a year for the next 30 years for improvements to Sun Life Stadium, home to the Dolphins and the University of Miami Hurricanes.
That measure, which also calls for the use of local hotel bed taxes for the project, has the full backing of the Dolphins and business groups from Miami-Dade County.
Proponents say a renovated stadium will help Florida secure the Super Bowl in 2016, when the NFL will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game. And a common argument in favor of all the sports incentives is that they will create spur job creation and help existing hotels and restaurants.
But critics, including legislators from Miami-Dade County, who say Dolphins owner Stephen Ross should use his own money to pay for stadium upgrades. Sun Life Stadium is still getting $2 million a year from the state that was used to convert it for baseball use even though the Miami Marlins have since moved out.
"This is corporate welfare for a billionaire," auto dealer Norman Braman said when he testified against the Dolphins stadium bill last week.
The push by professional sports teams comes as legislators question some of the state's existing economic development incentives. Some of the deals have gone bust.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and the Senate budget chief, says he won't support any new incentives for sports teams unless the state finds a way to pay for them. A Senate panel, for example, this week approved the elimination of a 30-year-old tax break for banks in order to pay for the Dolphins stadium bill.
"If you want to have new tax incentive program, go find some tax incentive programs that aren't working or aren't as important," Negron said.
"Let's not stack one on the other year after year," he added.
It's unclear, however, what will happen if any of the bills reach Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott has drawn up a list of five principles for local communities and pro sports teams seeking money from Tallahassee.
They include a requirement that local governments and team owners provide matching money for any stadium upgrades. The governor also would like each sports deal re-evaluated every five years and to put in a payback provision if the deal does not generate as much money as initially promised.
And the governor would like a requirement that a team remains in place during the time that any state-backed bonds are being paid off. If an owner moves the team, Scott would like them to pay back the money they had received.
"I'm responsible for the taxpayers of the state," Scott said this week when asked about the Dolphins. "Is it a good use of taxpayer money and can we get a return?"
But the Scott administration has been quick to point out that that it is not mandating that every bill meet all five principles in order to avoid his veto.
And the governor wants legislators to commit to $5 million a year from now on to help cities improve ballparks that are used by Major League Baseball teams for spring training. In recent years, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox have moved their camps to Arizona. Fears that more will move persist. Currently, 15 teams train in each state.
The state already has spent more than $40 million in the past decade, but the state put a cap on the amount of money and number of cities that could qualify for the funding.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor and a proponent of the extra help for spring training, views the latest effort differently from the proposals to help the Dolphins and other Florida-based teams.
"It's proven that it brings tourists to the state in large numbers," said Latvala, whose district includes the ballpark where the Toronto Blue Jays play. "In the month of March ... my district is full of cars with Canadian license plates."
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