Carl Hiaasen: Good news and bad on Dolphins stadium deal

Incredible as it seems, Miami-Dade voters might actually be allowed to decide whether or not tax dollars are used to renovate the Dolphins football stadium.

The Miami-Dade Commission has set May 14 for a referendum, contingent on approval by the Legislature. If it comes to pass, the event would be monumental.

Seldom is the public given a voice at the ballot box when fat subsidies are handed out to sports tycoons. This time, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had no choice.

Local politicians caught hell for the Marlins ballpark rip-off, which was kept from the reach of fuming voters. Out of sheer dread, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and others demanded a referendum on the Sun Life Stadium project.

That was the good news. The bad news is that the deal still stinks.

The county would jack up the so-called bed tax on hotel rooms, and from that revenue the Dolphins would receive more than $289 million over the next 26 years.

That’s the only sure thing about the arrangement — every penny of that tax money will be spent.

The team is supposed to refund at least $112 million to the county 30 years from now. How that dollar figure was settled upon doesn’t matter, because the chances of the check ever being written are roughly the same as that of Lindsay Lohan becoming a nun. It’s more whimsical than fantasy football. It’s fantasy financing.

Thirty years from now, this stadium contract will be a foggy memory. Sun Life will have been either bulldozed like the Orange Bowl, or refurbished several more times under new terms negotiated by a new cast of lobbyists and politicians.

The proposed upgrade of Sun Life would attract some new and desperately needed Dolphin season-ticket holders, but the primary selling point is that it will bring new Super Bowls to South Florida.

Rushing the referendum was necessary because on May 22 the NFL will pick the sites for the 50th and 51st Super Bowls. The league hasn’t formally committed to give one of those two games to Sun Life Stadium, even if the renovation plan is ratified by voters.

Never fear. The county and the team management cooked up a simple formula obviously modeled on frequent-flier mileage programs.

The units of measurement are called “Marquee Event Points.” According to the deal language, the stadium must accrue a total of 120 over the next 30 years.

There are Tier 1 and Tier 2 Marquee Events, with varying point allocations. For example, 15 Marquee Event Points will be awarded for “the first four Super Bowls and each World Cup Soccer Final game.” Talk about optimism!

A fifth Super Bowl would be worth 20 Marquee Event points, while college football championships and World Cup non-final matches would earn 10 points.

Tier 2 Events, which are defined as internationally televised soccer matches, will be worth one modest point to the stadium.

Every year, the Dolphins will submit a statement showing how many Marquee Event points have been tallied. If the stadium doesn’t reach 120 points by 2043, the county is supposed to be paid a sum calculated as the total shortfall points multiplied by $1 million.

For example, if only 80 Marquee Event points are accumulated, the stadium owner (now Ross) would theoretically owe $40 million to Miami-Dade.

The provision was crafted strictly for show. No shortfall payment will ever be made. Not ever. If Ross is still around three decades from now, he’ll be almost 103 years old and not fretting about Marquee Event points.

The quota was composed purely to make current county commissioners look like they’re taking a hard line with the billionaire — you bring us some Super Bowls, buster, or else!

In reality, it’s not the NFL teams who do the hardest work luring the championship game to their cities. The major pitch comes from agencies such as the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, which already receive public funds.

The bed-tax increase — and by extension the Sun Life stadium remake — hinge on the NFL awarding one future Super Bowl to South Florida when league owners convene, eight days after the referendum.

It’s the football equivalent of waiting for a puff of smoke from the Vatican. But instead of white the puff should be green, in honor of the $289 million corporate blessing it represents.

Faith of the blind variety has overcome most of the county commissioners, who by an 8-3 margin endorsed the stadium deal last week. Among the outspoken dissenters was Commissioner Xavier Suarez, the former Miami mayor, who said that “many Floridians are tired of bailing out big franchises.”

Tired, and also ticked off.

Depending on what happens in Tallahassee, the Dolphins will have one month to convert voters to the religion of Marquee Event subsidies. It will require miracles, revelations, and a very low turnout on May 14.

Read more Carl Hiaasen stories from the Miami Herald

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