Miami-Dade lawmakers mum on stadium tax deal for Dolphins

Earlier this week, the Miami Dolphins succeeded in getting a committee of lawmakers from across the state to vote for a taxpayer deal written exclusively for the team’s $400 million stadium renovation.

“I’ve never done a bill that benefits one person, statutorily, so I have real concerns with that,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, before laying aside her concerns and joining 10 other senators to cast a unanimous vote for the measure.

The legislative triumph appears to be short-lived for the Dolphins’ top brass.

The reason: The Miami-Dade delegation of lawmakers decided not to give the proposal its full endorsement.

The 24-member delegation finalized its list of legislative priorities Thursday, naming goals like fighting insurance price hikes, funding Jackson Memorial Hospital and building a memorial for Bay of Pigs veterans.

Conspicuously absent from the list: any mention of a proposal to provide the Dolphins as much as $200 million for a stadium makeover.

“The delegation didn’t take a position,” said Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, a Hialeah Republican who chairs the delegation and is sponsoring the Dolphins bill. “We have quite a few members that are on board with it, there’s a few that are not.”

Localized bills that don’t have the full support of a local delegation face a steeper challenge of getting approval from the full Legislature, where some lawmakers may be hesitant to vote for special tax deals in other parts of the state.

The Dolphins brushed aside the development, with SunLife stadium CEO Mike Dee saying he remains “confident that our elected leaders can and will address many other important issues” not listed on the priorities list.

State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican and vice chair of the delegation, said the Dolphins measure didn’t even come up during the recent goal-setting meeting. Gonzalez said he did not consider the bill a priority for the county, even though he’s sponsoring it.

Instead, issues like education, affordable housing, healthcare funding are the goals South Florida lawmakers have agreed to focus on.

“These are the things that our constituents want us to concentrate on right now,” said Diaz.

The Miami-Dade County commission fully endorsed the stadium project last month, asking state legislators to approve it. The commission did not convince the local delegation to make the measure a priority.

It’s not the first time rifts have emerged in the Miami-Dade delegation over a stadium bill.

Last year, members of the delegation held a public feud on the floor of the House over a bill to help the City of Miami avoid paying property taxes after a botched stadium deal with the Marlins. The bill was sponsored by Diaz.

Rep. Ana Rivas Logan, R-Miami, said in a floor speech that she received a threatening phone call — possibly from another lawmaker — after she opposed the measure.

The property tax relief bill eventually passed, and Logan and Diaz went on to square off in a primary election six months later. Diaz won.

The widely-panned Marlins deal continues to cast a shadow over the Dolphins as the team seeks taxpayer assistance to renovate its 25-year-old stadium.

Sponsors and supporters of the Dolphins’ proposal often begin their pitches with the phrase, “This is not another Marlins’ stadium.” A slew of supporters came to Tallahassee this week to tell lawmakers the bill would create thousands of jobs and bring Super Bowls and other events to Florida.

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, city of Miami Gardens and other local groups have come out in support of the package.

But constituents back in South Florida have been making their voice known on the issue, with some blasting the deal as corporate welfare for billionaire Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.

Ross and the Dolphins are asking for the county’s mainland hotel tax to increase from 6 percent to 7 percent, as well as up to $90 million in state sales tax rebates, paid out over 30 years.

The delegation’s non-endorsement could harm the Dolphins’ chances, but the team has a well-connected team of lobbyists and supporters backing the bill.

Ron Book, an influential lobbyist representing the Dolphins, said he wasn’t concerned by the delegation’s decision. He said the team’s strategy is to work with all 160 legislators and convince them that having a state-of-the-art Dolphins stadium will benefit the entire state.

“The legislative session hasn’t even started,” he said. “We’re barely in the first quarter of a long football game.”

Miami Herald reporters Mary Ellen Klas and Doug Hanks contributed to this story. Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@Miamiherald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

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