Florida lawmakers reject Miami Dolphins stadium referendum bill

Up against the clock and with a future Super Bowl on the line, the Miami Dolphins suffered an epic loss Friday in the state Capitol. The look of defeat on the face of Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, as he hugged House Speaker Will Weatherford, spoke volumes as the team’s stadium effort failed.

Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, had been the Dolphins’ chief ally in the Florida House. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, turned out to be the team’s nemesis.

“OK, members,” Weatherford said at 6:57 p.m. Friday. “We’re done.”

Lawmakers ended the 60-day legislative session without approving a deal to provide taxpayer support for a $350 million upgrade of Sun Life Stadium. With last-minute amendments and late-game Hail Marys, the Dolphins held out until the final hour.

But a deal was not to be had, as Weatherford rejected the overtures of several lawmakers who pleaded with him to hear the bill. The House instead killed the stadium effort without a vote.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross responded with a harshly worded statement, blasting Weatherford.

“He put politics before the people and the 4,000 jobs this project would have created for Miami Dade, and that is just wrong,” Ross said, accusing the House speaker of misleading him.

Weatherford denied that he had made any promises on the bill, and said the proposal needed more vetting before being approved. Other House members called it a “bad deal” for taxpayers.

The impact of the Tallahassee non-deal quickly rippled down the state.

A Miami-Dade referendum vote scheduled for May 14 was abruptly called off and more than 60,000 ballots cast early and by mail will be thrown out. Most early voting sites slated to open Saturday will be closed.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told The Miami Herald late Friday that the Dolphins’ proposal should have been voted up or down by county voters.

“The Dolphins deserved their day in court,” he said. “But we knew taking it to the Legislature was a risk. That’s why the Dolphins had to pay for the special election.”

The bill’s journey through the Legislature was one of the most politically dramatic storylines of the 60-day session, and the odds were always tough for the privately owned stadium.

“It looks bleak,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat sponsoring the Dolphins’ effort, early Friday as the proposal was on life support. He, too, tried to lobby Weatherford on the House floor.

Haunted by the specter of a widely-panned 2009 Miami Marlins stadium deal and amid cries of “corporate welfare,” the Dolphins faced a Herculean task of getting lawmakers across the state to agree to their proposed tax deal. It didn’t help that the deal’s loudest opponents were members of the Miami-Dade delegation, who would typically be expected to use their collective power to pass a local bill through the Legislature.

Before failing, the Dolphins mounted an effort of heavy lobbying, private jet trips to Tallahassee, numerous concessions and a little procedural sleight of hand in an attempt to pull off one of the year’s most contentious legislative feats. While the Senate agreed to support the stadium deal, the team came up short in the House.

The Dolphins’ backers were still trying to attach favorable language to several different bills late Friday, a flailing effort to save the stadium upgrade in the waning hours of session.

Senators amended a massive transportation bill to add language related to sports stadiums, but the House — which has played spoiler for the Dolphins throughout the session — refused to bring the bill up for a vote.

The Dolphins were seeking up to $289 million in taxpayer support from an increase in the Miami-Dade hotel tax, from 6 to 7 percent. The proposal also offered the team a shot at up to $90 million in state sales tax rebates. The bill allowed other sports organizations to compete for state tax dollars as well.

Bogged down by strong opposition within the Miami-Dade caucus of lawmakers, the Dolphins struggled to get their proposal through the House. The failure was not for lack of trying.

Top football names, including National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell and Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, along with Ross, came to Tallahassee in support of the effort.

The team also agreed to a series of concessions in an attempt to gain support from detractors, including agreeing to repay much of the tax money after 30 years and land several Super Bowls. Gonzalez said the team spent more than $10 million trying to land the deal, including $4.8 million for the now-canceled referendum vote.

The Dolphins said the multimillion-dollar stadium upgrade would help South Florida land several future Super Bowls and other major events. The team is competing with the San Francisco Bay Area for the right to host Super Bowl 50 in 2016. A group of NFL owners are scheduled to meet on May 21 to decide host cities for Super Bowls 50 and 51.

Jorge Arrizurieta and H.T. Smith, who co-chaired the Miami Dolphins’ campaign for a stadium renovation, blasted Tallahassee lawmakers for adjourning without approving the stadium deal.

“The House put at risk the future of Super Bowls and other major events in Miami, which are so critical to our tourism economy,” the men said in a harsh statement. “It’s a sad day when Tallahassee gives San Francisco and Houston a victory at the expense of our community.”

In the end, the bill simply did not have adequate support of power players in the House, where Weatherford repeatedly said he and other lawmakers had concerns about it.

“We’re talking about a lot of money,” Weatherford said. “We’re talking about a major public policy issue … Before we spend $300 or $400 million in tax subsidies, I just think we need to talk about it and evaluate it more.”

Senators sent three different proposals to the House, which all died there.

Miami Herald reporters Doug Hanks and Marc Caputo contributed to this story. Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

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