Dolphins agree to referendum for stadium tax dollars

The Miami Dolphins have agreed to seek voter approval of tax dollars for Sun Life Stadium, with team executives dropping their objections to a referendum on the controversial plan, sources close to the matter said Saturday.

The Dolphins and County Mayor Carlos Gimenez plan to announce the referendum agreement at a press conference called for 8:15 a.m. Monday at County Hall, The Miami Herald has learned. Sen. Oscar Braynon, the Miami Gardens Democrat sponsoring a bill to bring Sun Life new state and county subsidies, would then change the proposed legislation to require a countywide vote on the plan, a source familiar with the Dolphins’ lobbying efforts said.

The Dolphins hope to get the issue before voters by May 22, when the NFL is expected to pick the host city for the 2016 Super Bowl, the 50th. The Dolphins have cited the bid to host that game as the reason to push for a quick decision on tax dollars to pay for about half of a proposed $400 million renovation.

Team owner Stephen Ross rejected the idea for a referendum as recently as last month, saying there wasn’t time. The apparent change in course comes days after Miami-Dade lawmakers left the stadium bill off their official list of priorities for this session in Tallahassee, a move that critics of the plan hailed as a big blow to the team’s chances in a Legislature already opposed to raising taxes.

By agreeing to a referendum, the Dolphins would test the lingering backlash against the 2009 deal that gave the Florida Marlins a new ballpark largely funded by taxpayers. The Dolphins see their plan as more palatable, since Ross has agreed to use private dollars to pay for at least $201 million of the project, with state and county funds paying for no more than $199 million.

Ross would likely use a mix of team and NFL funds, and some finance authorities have said NFL money could match the Dolphins’ contribution dollar for dollar.

The public money would come from a new $3 million state subsidy for Sun Life and increasing the county’s tax on mainland hotels to 7 percent from 6 percent. The Dolphins have proposed the same hotel-tax hike in prior years. A Miami Herald poll in October found 84 percent of Miami-Dade respondents were against spending tax dollars on the stadium, but that was before Ross’ pledge to use private dollars for a majority of the work.

In private discussions, people close to the Dolphins have long hinted Ross was willing to put more money into the deal, and a source close to the team said Saturday that a higher private contribution would probably be announced as part of a referendum campaign. The Dolphins have already been running television ads supporting the plan and last week held a barbecue and town hall in Miami Lakes, the first in a series of community forums on the deal.

Details were sketchy Saturday on how the vote would actually work and who would pay the cost, typically $3 million to $5 million for a countywide special election. The decision could be added to the ballot on a regular election, but none are scheduled before May. One source close to the discussions said a March referendum was possible, but that an April vote was more likely.

Norman Braman, the auto magnate who sued Miami-Dade to try and block the Marlins deal and is the leading critic of the Sun Life plan, labeled the referendum switch as a reflection of the Dolphins’ long-shot in Tallahassee.

“I think it’s a real act of desperation,’’ he said. “They’re trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Shame on the mayor.”

Dolphins executives say their focus groups show public support for the financing plan, given Ross’ pledge to keep public dollars below 50 percent of the work.

Ross’ fellow NFL owners are expected to vote May 22 to award the 2016 and ’17 Super Bowls. Miami Gardens and Santa Clara, Calif., are vying for 2016, and the loser will take on Houston for 2015.

With an upgraded Sun Life better able to attract Super Bowls, national college football championships and global soccer, team executives are pushing the renovation as a boost to tourism. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce last week endorsed the plan, following a non-binding vote by the Miami-Dade County Commission embracing the proposal, too. The University of Miami’s new athletic director, Blake James, has been making the rounds in support of the plan to upgrade the Hurricanes’ home field, as have leaders of the Orange Bowl committee.

Sen. Braynon would alter his bill to allow the higher Miami-Dade hotel tax if approved by voters, according to the source familiar with the Dolphins’ lobbying effort. The move would give Miami-Dade the highest hotel tax in the state. State lawmakers would still need to change state law to allow the tax hike and for the new $3 million yearly subsidy for Sun Life.

Sun Life currently receives $2 million a year, tied to renovations made in the 1990s when the Florida Marlins played baseball there. At the time, Wayne Huizenga owned both teams.

Dolphins executives and Gimenez declined to comment Saturday. On Saturday night, Gimenez’s office announced a joint press conference with team CEO Mike Dee. Braynon declined to talk about the bill, but said he and others have pushed the Dolphins to allow a referendum. When he announced the proposed financing plan on Jan. 14, Ross said the pending Super Bowl decision left no time for a vote.

But the Dolphins faced a tough road in Tallahassee on their tax-hike bill, given the tax-averse, Republican-controlled Legislature. Last week, Miami-Dade lawmakers caucused to agree on the county delegation’s priorities, and the stadium bill did not make it onto the list. The Dolphins feel confident that the referendum provision will make the bill much easier to pass, a source close to the team said.

A majority of county commissioners, however, endorsed the legislation on Jan. 23 — and tasked Gimenez with negotiating with the Dolphins to avoid a deal lopsided in the team’s favor, as critics say happened with the publicly financed ballpark for the Miami Marlins. Gimenez was elected mayor after stridently opposing the Marlins deal while a county commissioner.

The mayor’s calendar shows he met on Jan. 28 with Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, and on Feb. 1 with Ross.

Last month, Gimenez said he would welcome a public vote on the Dolphins’ plans.

“I think they probably should go to referendum, but do we have the time? I don’t know,” he told The Miami Herald on Jan. 17.