Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins under pressure to pay for stadium election

The potential tab for winning Super Bowl 50 continues to grow for Miami-Dade County.

Over the weekend, the Miami Dolphins switched gears and began pushing for a quick referendum on using public dollars for about half of a $400 million renovation of Sun Life Stadium. The team contends the upgrade is key to bringing the 50th Super Bowl to Miami Gardens in 2016. That game will be awarded by May 22, and the Dolphins want Miami-Dade to hold a special countywide election before NFL owners vote.

Holding a special election could cost as much as $5 million, county officials said, and the urgency tied to the Super Bowl contest is sure to put pressure on the Dolphins to compensate Miami-Dade for the expense.

“I’m not at all favorable to the idea of us paying for it,’’ County Commissioner Xavier Suarez said Sunday while describing himself as “heartened” by the Dolphins’ decision to endorse a referendum.

Dolphins executives were mum over the weekend on whether owner Stephen Ross would offer to pay for an election the team has previously resisted, or if they’re aware of a legal way to reimburse the county. Though racetracks paid Broward and Miami-Dade about $7 million as compensation for a 2005 special election on a ballot issue they wanted passed, state law generally bars local governments from taking money for an election.

The rush for a referendum marks a big pivot by a team that has resisted letting the public vote on public funding for Sun Life since it first began lobbying for government help in 2010. And it also puts even more of a spotlight on the potential rewards for hosting the 50th Super Bowl rather than the 52nd or 53rd, since a revamped stadium would probably make Miami Gardens a strong contender for future Super Bowls whenever the upgrade took place.

“It’s the golden anniversary game,” Rodney Barreto, chair of South Florida Super Bowl Committee and one of the Dolphins’ most vocal backers, said of Super Bowl 50. “It’s an opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime.’’

If Miami-Dade had to pay for the election, it could dilute a central part of Ross’ campaign for the kind of tax support already in place at Marlins Park and the Miami Heat’s American Airlines Arena. In unveiling the proposed funding plan last month, Ross issued a pledge that the upgrades would mean no new expenses for Miami-Dade taxpayers.

Instead, $199 million of the costs would come from a new $3 million state subsidy for Sun Life and increasing the taxes hotel guests in mainland Miami-Dade hotels to 7 percent from 6 percent.

Ross, a billionaire real estate developer based in New York, has pushed back on calls for him to fund the entire renovation himself, given the $210 million in renovations the team paid for in 2007, the $1 billion he paid for the team in 2009, and the economic boost that goes to the region from a major sporting event.

On a program aired Sunday, WPLG-ABC 10’s Michael Putney asked Dolphins CEO Mike Dee to respond to criticism that the plan is “welfare for billionaires.” Dee answered: “Just because somebody is wealthy enough doesn’t mean he should invest money in a way that is unwise. Mr. Ross has made a tremendous commitment to this franchise, and to this community.”

Ross made a similar comment in January, saying “There is a limit of how much capital that you can put into something..” Dee issued a statement Sunday night, and said of Ross: “No franchise owner in the history of South Florida sports has ever invested more. Our ability to continue to invest unilaterally is not limitless.”

Ross has touted the upgrades as a way to bolster Sun Life’s ability to attract major sporting events to South Florida. That includes national college football championships and global soccer games in the summer to fill the gap left by the Marlins’ move to a new ballpark in Little Havana.

But the prize of Super Bowl L looms large in the team’s campaign, with supporters seeing the milestone anniversary as ratifying Miami’s reputation as one of the top big-event cities in the country. This month, New Orleans tied South Florida’s record of hosting 10 Super Bowls, and Dolphins supporters warn that dynasty is in jeopardy without a major upgrade of the stadium, built in 1987.

Skeptics doubt the 50th Super Bowl could draw that much more spending to a location like Miami, since the championship game always brings a sold-out stadium, packed hotels and a long roster of corporate social events. While the Dolphins contend Super Bowl L would mean an additional $500 million to South Florida’s economy, some academics put Super Bowl boosts at closer to $50 million for a host city that already has a thriving tourism business in the winter.

With Miami-Dade lawmakers in Tallahassee cool to the Dolphins bill, a referendum could shake up the political calculus and win approval of the bill the Dolphins need to raise hotel taxes in Miami-Dade.

But with the county still in a budget crunch from the housing crisis, the cost of the referendum is a sensitive topic — and could give the Dolphins an opportunity for good will if Ross can find a way to pay for it. County Commissioner Lynda Bell, who cast one of nine votes in the non-binding resolution supporting the Dolphins, issued a statement this weekend demanding the team pay for the referendum.

In 2005, racetracks agreed to deals with Broward and Miami-Dade to pay almost $7 million upfront to cover the cost of a special election to allow slot machines into the tracks. The arrangement was structured so that the gambling companies were paying for anticipated costs to the government if the measure passed rather than for the election itself.

The measures both passed, but opponents at the time questioned the idea of letting businesses fund elections that benefitted them. A 1983 opinion by the Florida Secretary of State concluded: “Under a private financing scheme, election financiers could acquire unprecedented influence over elections.”

Letting county voters decide the Sun Life matter would be free if the question was added to the ballot during a regularly scheduled election, but the next one isn’t on the calendar until the August 2014 primary.

By then, Ross’ fellow NFL owners may have awarded Super Bowls through late in the decade, since in May they plan to pick host cities for both the 2016 and 2017 games. South Florida is competing with San Francisco and its new $1 billion stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., for the ’16 game, and the loser will take on Houston for the ’17 game.

Super Bowls always come with a significant tab for local governments, which the NFL contends is washed away by a flood of deep-pocketed visitors and lavish spending.

The 2010 Super Bowl held in Miami Gardens cost Broward and Miami-Dade at least $6 million in cash outlays and free services, including police protection for the stadium, according to reports released at the time. The nonprofit host committee that raises money from public and private sources spent about $10 million, according to tax records. But budgets have been getting higher. Dallas reported spending more than $30 million to host Super Bowl XLV in 2011.