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Early voting for Miami Dolphins stadium referendum begins Monday amid uncertainty in Tallahassee

Early voting begins Monday in a Miami-Dade election so unusual that the whole thing could be called off by the end of the week.

The Florida Legislature has until the annual lawmaking session ends Friday to approve legislation supporting the Miami Dolphins’ push for a subsidized renovation to Sun Life Stadium. Otherwise, the May 14 referendum asking voters to approve the project will be canceled. The results of the ballots cast up to that point would be kept secret.

There is plenty of opposition — including from both local Republican and Democratic parties — to increasing the mainland Miami-Dade hotel-tax rate to 7 percent from 6 percent to pay the Dolphins up to $289 million over 30 years for the renovation. But no one has financed a full-fledged campaign against the plan so far.

“I don’t think there’s any sense in spending the money I don’t have for something that may not materialize,” said Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, who has traveled to Tallahassee to speak against the legislation.

Miami auto magnate Norman Braman, another opponent, has also said he is focusing his efforts lobbying state lawmakers instead of launching a campaign.

The Miami-Dade Republican Party, whose members opposed the deal last month, has not taken further action. Their Democratic counterparts, who are also against the deal, and neutral civic groups have limited themselves to hosting community forums.

As a result, the Dolphins have had phone lines, mailboxes and radio and television airwaves to themselves. The stadium’s political action committee, Friends of Miami First, has raised $1 million since April 1, according to its first campaign finance report filed Friday. All contributions came from the Dolphins and South Florida Stadium LLC, team owner Stephen Ross’ company that owns the Sun Life.

The campaign spent about $347,000 in that period, mostly on advertising and phones to reach voters.

The carefully orchestrated campaign has targeted reliable voters with calls, fliers and broadcast advertisements since last Tuesday, when the elections department mailed its first batch of domestic absentee ballots. More than 186,500 ballots had been sent by Friday. The deadline to request them is May 8.

Campaign representatives have been making the rounds to Miami-Dade senior centers to reach older Hispanic voters who typically cast ballots — often by mail — in every election.

Vote sí por la modernización del estadio Sun Life,” read a poster standing next to seniors having lunch one day last week at the Claude and Mildred Pepper Senior Activities Center in Sweetwater. “Vote yes for the modernization of Sun Life Stadium.”

“Our grassroots supporters have been fanning out across the county speaking to community centers, going door to door, and discussing the benefits of this plan with their friends and neighbors,” Eric Jotkoff, a campaign spokesman, said last week in a statement to The Miami Herald.

There has been limited pushback. The Spanish-language radio station WAQI-AM (710), known as Radio Mambí, featured an evening drive-time program last week in which former Miami Commissioner Armando Lacasa gave an extensive and bruising critique of the stadium renovation deal.

The Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., which has not opposed the deal, held a forum last week to ask for more long-term stadium jobs for black workers. The organization is calling its campaign “F the stadium agreement: The ‘F’ stands for fix.”

The Dolphins’ ads have played up their contention, based on an economic study they commissioned, that the $350 million renovation to the Miami Gardens stadium would create thousands of jobs. The team has agreed to an “aspirational” goal to hire at least 70 percent of its construction workers from Miami-Dade, with 10 percent from Miami Gardens and at least 20 percent from low-income areas.

The ads have also noted that the stadium would refund $159 million to the state and county — though they don’t mention that the payments would come at the end of 30 years — and that, under the deal negotiated by County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and tentatively approved by commissioners, the stadium would commit to hosting a certain number of sporting events or pay up to $120 million in penalties.

None of the team’s ads say how much public money Sun Life would receive — up to $289 million from the county and $90 million from a proposed state sales-tax subsidy — nor do they specify that the hotel-tax rate would increase by 1 cent per dollar.

Neither does the ballot question, which says only that the stadium would “use” $7.5 million a year, “adjusted annually for growth, from additional tourist room taxes.”

That language, which bothered some county commissioners, has also rankled voters like Daniel Saybolt, who attended a South Miami-Dade forum about the stadium plan Democrats organized last week.

“There is no total number on the ballot language,” said Saybolt, who said he is a registered independent. “‘It’s only going to cost $7.5 million a year and the tourists are going to pay for all of it’ — that’s the impression.”

Saybolt said he has kept an open mind about the stadium renovation but plans to vote against it. The proposal is “much better” than the publicly financed Miami Marlins’ ballpark, he conceded, and he called the Dolphins “a terrific corporate citizen.”

But he said he was concerned by how quickly the deal had come together and the little time voters have had to digest it since Gimenez and the Dolphins reached an agreement three weeks ago.

The Dolphins pushed to hold the referendum before National Football League owners award the 50th and 51st Super Bowls on May 22. Miami-Dade funding for the renovation is contingent on Sun Life hosting one of those games.

“It seems like we were moving heaven and earth to get one Super Bowl,” Saybolt said. “I am troubled by the way it has been rolled out.”

Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Douglas Hanks, and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Brenda Medina, contributed to this report.

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