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Miami Dolphins bill would bring state money to aging stadiums

A bill drafted by the Miami Dolphins would give Florida sports teams $3 million a year in state money to improve older stadiums, provided the owner pays for at least half the cost of a major renovation.

Under the law, the stadium would need to be 20 years old and the team willing to put in at least $125 million for a $250 million renovation. That’s less than the $400 million redo of Sun Life Stadium that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross proposed this week, which he hopes will win state approval thanks to his offer to fund at least $200 million of the effort to modernize the 1987 facility.

Miami-Dade and Florida would fund the rest through a mix of county hotel taxes and state general funds set aside for stadiums. Sun Life currently receives $2 million a year through the program, and the Dolphins want to create a new category that would give them an additional $3 million.

While the Miami Marlins and Miami Heat both play in stadiums subsidized by county hotel taxes, the Dolphins receive no local dollars. The bill would change that by allowing Miami-Dade to increase the tax charged at mainland hotels to 7 percent from 6 percent, and eliminate the current rule that limits the money to publicly owned stadiums. Sun Life Stadium, in Miami Gardens, is privately owned but sits on county land.

The bill pits enthusiasm for one of Florida’s most popular sports teams against a lean budget climate and lingering backlash against the 2009 deal that had Miami and Miami-Dade borrow about $485 million to build a new ballpark for the Marlins. Ross also must navigate a Republican-led Legislature that has twice rebuffed his requests for public dollars.

“I would be surprised if that bill even got a hearing in committee,” said Mike Fasano, a Republican representative from the Tampa area and a critic of tax-funded sports deals. “I’m a big Dolphin fan, and have been for years. But with all due respect, we’ve got people who are struggling throughout this state right now . .. The last thing we should be doing is giving a professional sports team or facility additional tax dollars.”

While the bill would open up the $3 million subsidy to other the teams, the Dolphins see it as unlikely that another owner would be willing to put up as much money for renovations as Ross, a billionaire real estate developer.

If the bill were enacted today, any stadium opened before 1993 would be eligible for the money, provided it could show the proposed renovation would generate an additional $3 million in sales taxes.

Ross and his backers are pitching the renovation as a boon to tourism, with Sun Life a magnet for the Super Bowl, national college football games and other major events. The National Football League is considering South Florida and San Francisco for the 2016 Super Bowl, and the Dolphins say approval of renovation funding is crucial to winning the bid.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who sponsored the Senate bill, said the funding makes sense because when Sun Life hosts a Super Bowl, the entire state benefits from both tourism dollars and publicity.

“It’s a small price to pay for economic development, and for all the shine we get from major sporting events,” said Braynon, whose district includes Sun Life. Rep. Eduardo “Eddy” Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, is the sponsor on the House side.

Braynon said the Marlins deal hurts the Dolphins’ chances, even among lawmakers whose districts are far from the baseball team’s new, publicly owned field built on the site of the old Orange Bowl in Little Havana. “Even people up here think about the Marlins stadium,” he said from Tallahassee. “That’s the biggest hurdle, in my opinion.”

The Dolphins have launched, a website, and @miamifirst, a Twitter account, to promote the stadium plan. The team continues rolling out endorsements from some of Miami-Dade’s largest hotels, including a thumbs-up from Donald Trump, the new owner of the Doral golf resort.

“At Trump National, we understand the importance of world-class events as economic drivers. Steve Ross’ commitment to modernize Sun Life Stadium — while covering most of the construction costs — is the right thing for Miami-Dade,” Trump said in a statement released by the team.

And while auto magnate Norman Braman has vowed to fight the Dolphins deal, other crusaders against the Marlins deal have mostly held their fire. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who voted against the Marlins plan as a city commissioner, said he endorsed spending hotel taxes on the Dolphins’ stadium.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who rode anti-Marlins sentiment into County Hall after the recall ouster of his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, who backed the baseball plan, demurred. A Gimenez spokeswoman said Tuesday that he wants to see more details.

“Unlike the Marlins stadium deal, any proposal to renovate Sun Life Stadium must serve a public purpose and protect the interests of our residents and taxpayers,” Gimenez said in a statement.

Ross and his allies contributed heavily to incumbents in the recent County Commission elections, facing off against challengers funded by Braman, also a billionaire.

Interviews with commissioners suggest Ross will at least get a hearing should the Legislature grant Miami-Dade the authority to raise hotel taxes beyond the 6 percent statewide cap.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, one of four “no” votes for the 2009 Marlins deal, said she was willing to consider the Dolphins’ proposal.

“I’m open-minded. I assume it would make us competitive to get bowl games, and the Super Bowl,” she said. “It’s something I’m willing to take a look at.”

Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, who voted for the Marlins deal, said Ross’ money and the use of hotel taxes would be key to her support.

“If they give more than 50 percent, I’m willing to listen. As long as we don’t use one penny of property tax money,” she said.

Xavier Suarez, who joined the commission in 2011, supports the Dolphins’ effort but wants to consider a referendum — a step the team opposes.

Using hotel taxes is “totally different from the idea of taxing property owners,” he said. But “it has to be approved by the people.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Chuck Rabin contributed to this report.

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