March 14, 2013

Widespread support for Dolphins stadium bill, except in Miami-Dade

The state bill to help the Miami Dolphins pay for stadium renovations has broad support in the Legislature, but Miami-Dade lawmakers are split.

The Miami Dolphins’ push for a bill to help pay for stadium renovations sailed through another committee of the Florida Legislature on Thursday with the support of lawmakers hailing from Umatilla to Sebring.

While legislators who live hundreds of miles from the Miami Gardens stadium have agreed to send state tax dollars to the Dolphins, Miami-Dade County’s delegation is lukewarm to the idea. The result: The only organized opposition to SB 306 is coming from the county that is requesting a special tax carve-out.

An informal poll of 25 Miami-Dade County lawmakers (some have districts that extend beyond Miami-Dade) shows that the delegation is split over the Dolphins’ stadium, reflecting the political potency of the issue of sending taxpayer dollars to sports teams in South Florida. Uproar over the taxpayer-financed stadium for the Miami Marlins led to the recall of former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez in 2011.

“I like the Dolphins, I like the football team, but I don’t think it’s the best use of our public funds,” Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said last week before filing several amendments aimed at gutting the bill.

Trujillo’s amendments failed, but not before picking up votes from other Miami-Dade lawmakers, who called the deal “corporate welfare.”

It might not matter.

The Dolphins have massaged their bill to make it more palatable to lawmakers across the state, agreeing to allow local taxpayers to approve a new hotel tax to help finance the stadium makeover. The team also agreed to continue to play in Florida for decades to come, a concession requested by Gov. Rick Scott.

Those concessions — and a well-connected lobbying team —have helped the Dolphins push through a politically thorny proposal despite the concerns about sending taxpayer money to a billionaire (Dolphins owner Stephen Ross) and the shadow of the Marlins deal.

The team has also picked up support from local business groups like the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, which endorsed SB 306 on Thursday.

“I think their support underscores just how important this is,” said Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, who traveled to Tallahassee for the committee vote. “They’re trying to grow tourism.”

The proposal has cleared three of its four committees in the Senate with only one senator voting against it. The bill passed its first committee in the House by a comfortable margin, and has two more committee stops before it can reach the floor.

The team is asking for the mainland hotel tax to increase to 7 percent from 6 percent, as well as up to $90 million in sales tax rebates. That would help finance about half of the $400 million in stadium renovations. Miami-Dade voters would have to agree to the new hotel tax in a referendum, but and a recent poll showed widespread opposition to the proposal.

Though the Dolphins’ proposal has gained steam in the Senate — where more than half of the 40 senators have already voiced their support at the committee level — it faces longer odds in the House.

Several Miami-Dade representatives oppose the bill, while others, who are on the fence, are being heavily lobbied by both sides. Some, like Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, said the addition of a local referendum helped seal his vote.

Some area mayors — like Cutler Bay’s Ed MacDougall — have come out forcefully against the proposal, along with billionaire car dealer Norman Braman, who led the charge to oust Alvarez.

Both Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, and Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, whose districts stretch into South Miami-Dade, said the opposition of local mayors has given them pause about the proposal.

Both say they do not yet know how they will vote on the measure. Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, also hasn’t made up her mind, and said she has been getting plenty of attention from both sides.

Other lawmakers — including Reps. Frank Artiles, Michael Bileca, Jose Oliva and Jeanette Nuñez — have said they are against the proposal, which is sponsored by Dade delegation chair Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah. The delegation left the Dolphins bill off their list of legislative priorities last month, which is usually a setback for a local proposal.

Dee brushed aside the rift within the local delegation, expressing confidence after a favorable 16-1 committee vote for SB 306 Thursday.

“Does it bother us? No,” he said. “I think it’s reflective of the fact that there’s debate about this issue and the fact that the voters will have the final voice on this issue.”

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