Dolphins get unanimous support for stadium tax deal in first Senate hearing

The Miami Dolphins started off the legislative season 1-and-0 in their quest to get lawmakers’ approval for a multi-million dollar tax deal to upgrade its 25-year-old stadium.

But, as the Dolphins chances at success appear to be brightening, several other sports facilities in Florida are lining up to try out for tax deals of their own. From the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Daytona International Speedway, the Legislature will be fielding lots of requests for more public dollars.

On Tuesday, lawmakers on the Florida Senate’s Commerce and Tourism Committee voted unanimously a favor of a $400 million upgrade for SunLife stadium, using rhetoric that signaled broad support for the controversial practice of using taxpayer funds to support sports teams.

“We’ve got an excellent opportunity to really have a turbo-generator of economic activity,” Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said of the Dolphins deal. “It can be a blueprint. That’s something we can do because I don’t know if the [Jacksonville] Jags or others will want help. This is a blueprint, where they are not given the money, but they have to go out and earn it.”

On cue, several other sports teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, are beginning to jockey for new incentive deals, pitching a bevy of multimillion-dollar tax breaks for stadiums they say will boost the state’s economy.

A bill recently filed by Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, would carve out two new tax breaks for Major League Soccer facilities, aiding league executives who are looking to expand into the Orlando area. That bill would provide the facilities up to $2 million annually for up to 20 years.

Last week, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told reporters that the Jacksonville Jaguars might also be looking for a taxpayer-subsidized renovation. A bill that would provide a subsidy for EverBank Field in Jacksonville has not yet been filed.

Weatherford also hinted that the 53-year-old Daytona International Speedway may be gearing up for a new state deal, to “help make renovations.” The speedway unveiled drawings of a major renovation last month, but has not yet announced how much it will cost or how it will be funded. No legislation has been filed yet, and leaders in the House and Senate said all potential tax deals would be closely scrutinized.

“We have breathing room in our budget, so we’re going to have to determine what our priorities are,” Weatherford said.

The rush for new sports tax deals comes as Florida is looking at potentially passing its largest budget ever, based on Scott’s recent $74 billion proposal. An increase in state revenues and political willingness to spend more tax dollars could bode well for sports teams looking to cash in. All nine professional sports teams in Florida already benefit from multimillion-dollar tax breaks from the state of Florida.

Altogether, Florida has provided sports stadiums tax relief of more than $250 million. The state doles out millions more for things like spring training for Major League baseball.

While tax credits for sports teams have been controversial — particularly in the wake of a widely panned Miami Marlins deal in 2009 — lawmakers on Tuesday sounded upbeat about the concept.

Republicans and Democrats alike on the Senate Commerce and Tourism committee said that the Dolphins deal would likely result in new jobs and economic development for the state. Two days after Super Bowl XLVII, there was much talk of how an upgraded stadium might help Florida attract more championship games, and the tourist dollars that come with them.

“You have a sure deal here,” said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami. “You know that they’re going to employ more people. You know that it’s going to bring in more money.”

The Dolphins are asking for the mainland hotel tax to increase from 6 percent to 7 percent, as well as up to $90 million in sales tax rebates, paid out over 30 years. The $3 million annual tax break would be in addition to $2 million in annual payments SunLife is already receiving. Altogether, taxpayer money would help fund about half of the costs for the $400 million renovation. SunLife stadium CEO Mike Dee testified that the revamp would help South Florida attract “four or five Super Bowls and four or five college [football] championship games” over the next quarter-century.

The team’s bill, sponsored by Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, cleared its first hurdle with Tuesday’s vote, but it still faces an uphill climb. There will be several more committee stops and the bill also has to clear the Florida House, where Braynon acknowledged that there’s still some heavy lifting to do.

“In the Senate, I don’t think that we’re going to have as many problems as we’re going to have in the House,” he said.

Several stakeholders came up to Tallahassee on Tuesday to support the bill at its first committee hearing, including Miami Gardens mayor Oliver Gilbert, SunLife stadium CEO Mike Dee and Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce President Bill Diggs.

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce could endorse the Dolphins’ tax plan Wednesday. The business group’s executive board has recommended an endorsement, and the full board will consider the issue at a morning meeting, Chamber executives said.

Miami Herald reporter Doug Hanks contributed to this article. Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.