House, Senate differ on how to structure tax break for Dolphins

After reaching an agreement with Miami-Dade County on a plan to provide taxpayer funding for a stadium renovation, the Miami Dolphins must shift their focus quickly to Tallahassee, where lawmakers have to change state law before the deal can proceed.

Here, the biggest divide is not between the Dolphins and their potential governmental benefactors — there’s widespread support in Tallahassee for the team’s proposed tax break. The widest gap right now is between the Florida House and Senate, which have two very different blueprints for how the tax break should be structured.

The Senate wants the state’s sports teams to compete each year for a pot of tax dollars, with the money going only to those who can prove the money will boost economic development.

The House plan more closely mirrors the Dolphins’ original proposal — up to $90 million in guaranteed tax breaks specifically carved out for the Dolphins and the opportunity to raise millions more through local hotel taxes, if voters approve.

While the Dolphins have been quick to make concessions in order to push the bill through the Legislature, the two chambers haven’t been as conciliatory thus far. Their proposals have moved further apart over time, even as the legislative session nears its May 3 finale.

“I don’t think we should bundle it all and take it on as a full package,” said Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, referencing the Senate’s plan for a centralized tax break competition between sports teams. (Several sports teams are seeking special tax breaks from the Legislature this year).

Gonzalez, who is sponsoring the Dolphins’ bill in the House, has stood his ground as the Senate version has morphed to include a provision about international banking and the competition language. None of those measures are in the House bill.

In the Legislature, bills often die if the House and Senate can’t come to an agreement prior to the close of session. Last-minute horse-trading often rescues several measures from failing, but it’s an unpredictable process that most bill sponsors try to avoid.

The Dolphins seem assured that the two sides will come to an agreement before session ends.

“We’re confident that the Legislative leaders and bill sponsors will work in a bipartisan, bicameral manner to find a compromise that protects the future of Super Bowls and college championships in Miami-Dade as lawmakers work to create a process for financing sports facilities across the state,” team spokesman Eric Jotkoff said.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who proposed the amendment requiring sports teams to compete for tax breaks, said the change would provide more accountability and “take a little bit of the politics out of the process.”

That may be the case in the long-run, but at this point, with just over a month before a proposed referendum vote on the Dolphins’ proposal, the change has magnified the role of politics in deciding the team’s fate.

The bill — which allows the Dolphins to receive tax breaks from the state and the local government to help fund a $390 million stadium renovation — is already controversial in Tallahassee, with many conservatives calling it “corporate welfare.” HB 165 has faced opposition in the House, where it passed its most recent committee on a 10-7 vote. SB 306, the Senate version, has received unanimous approval in three of four committees.

Gov. Rick Scott appears to be warming up to the deal, after the Dolphins have agreed to make several concessions, including paying back some of the tax breaks and staying in Florida for 30 years.

“I like the fact that the Dolphins are putting a lot of [the club’s] money up,” he said Tuesday. “I like the fact they’re committing to stay. I like the fact that there’s a referendum.”

Still, the bill has a way to go before passing the Legislature and reaching Scott’s desk.

“You know how this process works — it could go right or it could all blow up,” said Gonzalez. He later added: “Sometimes, in this process, it just works out at the end.”

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

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