Miami Dolphins agree to pay back more stadium tax dollars

With the clock winding down on the Miami Dolphins’ quest for a taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade, the team called an audible Wednesday, announcing a new concession aimed at boosting support for the deal.

In back-to-back press conferences in Tallahassee and Miami, the team announced it would be willing to repay $47 million in state tax rebates after 2043.

It’s the latest in a series of concessions made by the Dolphins, who are seeking taxpayer help to renovate Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens despite the political uproar over publicly-financed stadiums in South Florida. A widely criticized deal for a new Miami Marlins stadium sparked the recall of former County Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

“I hope the opposition sees how willing we are to work to make [the deal] better,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican sponsoring the effort. “And I hope a lot of the people who are opposed will be willing to come on board and help us with this great project for Miami-Dade County.”

Among the concessions: The Dolphins have agreed to keep the team in South Florida for three decades, snag at least one Super Bowl by 2017, allow Miami-Dade voters to decide on whether to raise hotel taxes and, possibly, cover the cost of that referendum vote. The team also offered to pay back the principal — not the interest — from new hotel taxes and also pay penalties if the new stadium did not attract a certain number of high-profile sports events over the next 30 years.

In all, the team pledged to pay back about $167 million, including $120 million to the county government and $47 million to the state, by 2043. That covers much of the upfront costs, but not necessarily the cost of interest and inflation, which could be substantial.

The Dolphins are hoping Miami-Dade County will raise the mainland hotel tax to 7 percent from 6 percent to help finance a renovation that could cost about $389 million. The team is also requesting up to $90 million in sales tax rebates from the state of Florida. They are hardly alone. Other professional sports franchises are also seeking state tax breaks from the Legislature.

Juggling negotiations with Miami-Dade and the Legislature, the Dolphins face a time crunch. The team needs voters to approve the hotel tax in a referendum, and the county must notify the public of a special election 30 days before it takes place. For a May 14 referendum — which is likely the latest it could occur to influence the NFL’s 50th and 51st Super Bowls award announcement on May 22 — that notice must occur within the next three weeks.

Holding press conferences 500 miles apart, bill sponsor Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, and Dolphins CEO Mike Dee both acknowledged time is a concern. They were, however, confident a deal could still be done.

In Miami, that requires inking a deal with the county over the terms of the financing plan. Dee and the Dolphins have been meeting with county officials, though they have not sat down with Mayor Carlos Gimenez in more than 10 days.

In Tallahassee, where the team needs lawmakers’ approval, the Dolphins have been trying to rally support for the tax plan.

The Dolphins’ bill had been cruising along in the Legislature, but things slowed this week when House and Senate committees did not schedule the proposal for a hearing.

Opponents and supporters of the proposal, SB 306, have been lobbying hard in the state Capitol, and the Dolphins have responded to critics by making concessions.

Dee said that once word leaked this week that the Dolphins were willing to repay the principal to Miami-Dade, state lawmakers immediately reached out to say they wanted the same.

Even with the concessions, many aren’t happy with the idea of using tax dollars to help rebuild the stadium. Critics blast the deal as “corporate welfare,” saying billionaire Dolphins owner Stephen Ross should finance the stadium renovation without public help.

“Why do they need interest-free money, whether it’s locally or from the state?” said state Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican. “They can pay for it themselves. We have much more critical priorities.”

Auto magnate Norman Braman, a billionaire himself and an outspoken critic of sports stadium deals, has said that even if the Dolphins pay back the public funds in 2043, it’s a poor deal for taxpayers.

He pointed out that the Dolphins would not be paying back the interest associated with the funds, and, accounting for inflation, a payback in 30 years would still leave taxpayers on the hook.

Dee slammed Braman, calling him “irrelevant” and saying the deal was “risk-free” financing.

“All we want to do is bring this to the voters of Miami-Dade County in a thoughtful way, and they’ll make the decision,” he said.

Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com. Adam Beasley can be reached at abeasley@MiamiHerald.com. Miami Herald Reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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