The Miami Dolphins and other professional sports teams in the state are moving closer to their goal of getting taxpayer help to pay for new stadiums and renovations.
With time running out during this year's session, the Florida Senate voted on Monday in favor of a bill that would allow the Dolphins and other franchises to compete for state money.
The vote, which came despite the opposition of Senate President Don Gaetz, sets the stage for the Dolphins to rally from what appeared to be a looming defeat in the Legislature.
The Dolphins were aided by a last-minute lobbying blitz by National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. The two men sat in the Senate gallery and watched as the measure was debated and then approved by a 35-4 vote.
"This is important to the NFL and it's important to this community," Goodell said afterward. "We are working hard to get stadiums improved. I think the deal that has been structured here is very intelligent and I wanted to demonstrate my support."
Goodell stopped short of promising that the planned $400 million worth of renovations to Sun Life Stadium would help South Florida win the right to host a Super Bowl. But he said it would "dramatically" improve chances for Miami. NFL owners are supposed to announce locations for the 2016 and 2017 Super Bowls in May.
The Dolphins want $3 million a year for 30 years to help pay for renovations. They are also seeking legislation to let Miami-Dade County raise local hotel bed taxes to also pay for the project. Miami-Dade voters are scheduled to vote May 14 on a referendum that increases the local taxes, and early voters began casting their ballots for the fate of Sun Life Stadium Monday.
But the measure (SB 306) passed by the Senate would not apply to just the Dolphins.
It would require any professional sports franchise seeking money to submit applications which would then be ranked by the state. Others who have been in Tallahassee seeking help this year include the Jacksonville Jaguars, Daytona International Speedway and the city of Orlando. Orlando wants help to build a new stadium to house a Major League Soccer team.
The rankings would then be submitted back to the Legislature for approval.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, argued against the bill, saying it was wrong to give help to "millionaires and billionaires" at a time when legislators can't agree to draw down federal aid to provide health insurance to the state's poor.
"What is the message that we're sending to the residents of this great state?" Garcia asked. "That if you have money and you have a business and you want to invest in that business, then by all means taxpayers should fund it."
Dolphins owner Ross countered Garcia's criticisms. He said afterward that he would still wind up footing most of the bill for the stadium upgrades and that the effort would ultimately help the community. The team has also agreed to reimburse most of the state money back after a 30-year period.
"I want this to be my legacy for Miami-Dade County," Ross said.
Gaetz said he voted against the bill because the final version removed the repeal of a tax credit now enjoyed by banks in the state. Gaetz had initially pushed for the end of the tax credit as a way to pay for the millions that will now go to sports teams.
Lawmakers are scheduled to end their annual session on May 3. The bill heads next to the Florida House but House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, on Monday praised the latest version of the bill because it creates a process for approving pro sports incentives.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has previously stated he could support incentives for sports team as long as it includes certain protections for the state. They include requiring local governments and to team owners provide matching money for any stadium upgrades.
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