TALLAHASSEE -- Up against the clock and with a future Super Bowl on the line, the Miami Dolphins suffered an epic loss Friday in the state Capitol. The look of defeat on the face of Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, as he hugged House Speaker Will Weatherford, spoke volumes as the team’s stadium effort failed.
Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, had been the Dolphins’ chief ally in the Florida House. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, turned out to be the team’s nemesis.
“OK, members,” Weatherford said at 6:57 p.m. Friday. “We’re done.”
Lawmakers ended the 60-day legislative session without approving a deal to provide taxpayer support for a $350 million upgrade of Sun Life Stadium. With last-minute amendments and late-game Hail Marys, the Dolphins held out until the final hour.
But a deal was not to be had, as Weatherford rejected the overtures of several lawmakers who pleaded with him to hear the bill. The House instead killed the stadium effort without a vote.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross responded with a harshly worded statement, blasting Weatherford.
“He put politics before the people and the 4,000 jobs this project would have created for Miami Dade, and that is just wrong,” Ross said, accusing the House speaker of misleading him.
Weatherford denied that he had made any promises on the bill, and said the proposal needed more vetting before being approved. Other House members called it a “bad deal” for taxpayers.
The impact of the Tallahassee non-deal quickly rippled down the state.
A Miami-Dade referendum vote scheduled for May 14 was abruptly called off and more than 60,000 ballots cast early and by mail will be thrown out. Most early voting sites slated to open Saturday will be closed.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told The Miami Herald late Friday that the Dolphins’ proposal should have been voted up or down by county voters.
“The Dolphins deserved their day in court,” he said. “But we knew taking it to the Legislature was a risk. That’s why the Dolphins had to pay for the special election.”
The bill’s journey through the Legislature was one of the most politically dramatic storylines of the 60-day session, and the odds were always tough for the privately owned stadium.
“It looks bleak,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat sponsoring the Dolphins’ effort, early Friday as the proposal was on life support. He, too, tried to lobby Weatherford on the House floor.
Haunted by the specter of a widely-panned 2009 Miami Marlins stadium deal and amid cries of “corporate welfare,” the Dolphins faced a Herculean task of getting lawmakers across the state to agree to their proposed tax deal. It didn’t help that the deal’s loudest opponents were members of the Miami-Dade delegation, who would typically be expected to use their collective power to pass a local bill through the Legislature.
Before failing, the Dolphins mounted an effort of heavy lobbying, private jet trips to Tallahassee, numerous concessions and a little procedural sleight of hand in an attempt to pull off one of the year’s most contentious legislative feats. While the Senate agreed to support the stadium deal, the team came up short in the House.
The Dolphins’ backers were still trying to attach favorable language to several different bills late Friday, a flailing effort to save the stadium upgrade in the waning hours of session.