Dolphins may concede state dollars in stadium fight

The Miami Dolphins may drop their fight for state dollars to renovate Sun Life Stadium in a last-minute bid to win legislative approval to use Miami-Dade hotel taxes for the project.

While the Dolphins succeeded in getting their bill passed by the Senate this week, team executives believe revisions to the bill would disqualify stadium projects from state dollars if the work begins before 2014, according to two sources close to the Dolphins. The Dolphins have promised to start the $350 million Sun Life project this year in order to be ready for the 50th Super Bowl in 2016, provided Miami-Dade voters approve a May 14 referendum that would authorize both the hotel-tax increase and the new state money.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, the Miami Gardens Democrat who wrote the Dolphins-backed bill, confirmed that the new language does prevent the team from receiving new state dollars if the project starts this year. He said he does not know what the Dolphins plan to do, but suggested a delay in the start of construction was possible.

“It may move their timeline,’’ Braynon said. “It may force them to move their timeline to fit in with what the bill says.”

Top team executives approved the new timing requirement in the revised state bill, and now the Dolphins no longer expect Florida to subsidize a renovation of the 1987 facility, the sources said. The sources also said there is no talk of delaying the renovation to qualify for state money. At a debate sponsored by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party in a conodminium complex near Miami Gardens on Wednesday night, a top Dolphins ally on the County Commission, Barbara Jordan, told the audience: “From what I understand, the state money is out. It’s completely out.”

Team executives would not comment publicly on the potential loss of state dollars as they race to get a bill approved in the final two days of the Legislative session, which is set to end Friday. Eric Jotkoff, a team spokesman, issued a statement that said: “Our priority continues to be making sure that the voters of Miami-Dade have the final say on modernizing Sun Life Stadium, which will create thousands of local jobs and provide a substantial boost to Miami-Dade’s economy.”

In the past, when the Dolphins have agreed to concessions, the team has trumpeted the changes with statements and press conferences. The bill could still be changed as lawmakers consider it in the House, where a 2/3 majority will be needed for passage. And there may be loopholes that would allow Sun Life to qualify for the state money under the revised bill, such as by breaking up the renovation into two phases and applying next year for the second part.

The county dollars would be the bigger prize, with Sun Life set to receive $7.5 million in 2013 and the payouts climbing to almost $16 million by 2039 under the arrangement sent to voters by Miami-Dade county commissioners.

The state subsidy would allow teams throughout Florida to compete for a pool of $13 million in stadium money, with the Dolphins originally angling to get $3 million annually during the next 30 years. According to Dolphins estimates, the team could privately borrow $47 million with the revenue stream provided by the state but more than double that — $112 million — with the county dollars. The team would refund the county and state amounts equal to the borrowed money after 30 years.

Sun Life already receives $2 million a year from Florida under an existing stadium subsidy tied to the stadium’s retrofit for baseball in the 1990s. Like the new subsidy, the $2 million payout is considered a rebate of sales tax collected at the qualifying stadiums.

The Dolphins endorsed the Senate rewrite as a way to get the bill through the House, which has proved more resistant to the stadium proposal. Speaker Will Weatherford said publicly he did not want special treatment for the Dolphins in the bill, and the provision allowing the early approval would only benefit the Miami team. The bypass was triggered if a stadium was up for a major event before 2014, and Miami Gardens is a finalist for two Super Bowls being awarded by the NFL in late May.

The renovation, which includes replacing all of the stadium’s seats and installing a partial roof, is scheduled to take 22 months. That construction schedule would still leave time to have the work finished in time for the 2017 Super Bowl, which the NFL is also awarding in May.

Delaying the renovation until 2014 would bring political complications for the Dolphins. The promised prestige and extra spending of the 50th Super Bowl was a major reason for rushing a referendum before league owners vote to award the game on May 21. A delay also would dilute the team’s promise of a quick injection of thousands of construction jobs for a battered economy. On Thursday, the Dolphins plan to hold the first in a string of job fairs for positions tied to the renovation.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.