The Miami Dolphins may reimburse Miami-Dade taxpayers the estimated $5 million it would cost to hold a May referendum on whether to subsidize renovations of Sun Life Stadium, the state elections office ruled Friday.
A cost-free vote was a main requirement that Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez had laid down in negotiating a subsidy deal with the team. “Miami-Dade County should not be forced to shoulder the cost of this election since it is being brought about by a request from a private party,” Gimenez said in a statement Friday afternoon after the state issued its opinion.
But a deal was still in the works Friday evening, without any sign of whether an agreement was imminent or at an impasse.
Gimenez had asked the state to weigh in on whether the Dolphins could pay for the referendum, which is expected to cost between $3 million and $5 million. Without that authorization, the mayor hinted Thursday night, the vote could have been delayed past May 21, when NFL owners begin a two-day meeting in which they will award the 50th and 51st Super Bowls.
The Dolphins have said they would pay for the referendum if they were legally allowed to do so.
The Dolphins’ legal ability to pay was in question because a 1980s Florida opinion prohibited private companies from funding an election. But state law was amended in 1992 to require pari-mutuels to deposit a sum to cover local county elections. That precedent means the earlier opinion no longer applies to this case, an elections official wrote.
“The proposal under discussion shifts the cost of the election from the taxpayers to a private entity, while providing a transparent method of private financing that is in no way contingent upon the result of the election,” wrote Maria Matthews, director of the division of elections at the Florida Department of State.
The opinion followed a marathon negotiation session that began at 3 p.m. Thursday and ended at 1 a.m. Friday. At one point, negotiators ordered pizza.
Gimenez said the two sides were “not far apart” but also “no closer” at the end of the discussions than they were earlier in the day.
The Dolphins have asked the Florida Legislature for an additional $3 million annual sales-tax rebate, and to allow the county to increase mainland Miami-Dade hotel taxes to 7 percent from 6 percent. The team agreed early on with Gimenez’s condition that the tax-rate hike require voter approval, but Gimenez said the two sides haven’t agreed on how much tax money the team should get for a renovation.
Dolphins CEO Mike Dee sounded more encouraging after emerging from the session early Friday morning, telling Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4: “We made a lot of progress. We’ve had a great dialogue with the county, and we will continue that tomorrow.”
But the talks did not resume Friday, at least at County Hall. The mayor’s spokespeople said he was awaiting a call from the Dolphins.
On Thursday, the team came across a new political problem: The Miami-Dade Republican Party — which knows how to organize voters quickly — approved a strongly worded resolution against the Dolphins’ proposal.
“Taxpayers should never be the source of corporate welfare for billionaires, and should not be responsible for the funds to renovate Sun Life Stadium for the Miami Dolphins,” the resolution says.
In an extraordinary move for the divided Republican Executive Committee, the measure also criticized two of its own by name, calling on state Reps. Eddy Gonzalez of Hialeah and Erik Fresen of Miami — who are supporting Dolphins-backed legislation in Tallahassee — “to immediately withdraw sponsorship and support.”
A Dolphins spokesman who attended the GOP meeting dismissed the symbolic measure. “The largely internal, personal politics of the Miami-Dade REC, which drove the 37-34 vote, has no impact on the efforts to modernize Sun Life Stadium,” Anthony Bustamante said in a written statement to The Miami Herald.
Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.