Stadiums strike out on Florida taxpayer dollars

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers are taking another run at eliminating an unused pool of sales-tax dollars intended for building and improving professional sports facilities.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, with little comment Monday, backed the latest proposal (SB 414) by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, to repeal a controversial 2014 program that — despite never being used — lays out steps for the stadium money to become available.

“Should the Legislature decide at some point it did want to fund a particular facility for a particular purpose, the Legislature could always go back and do it the way they’ve always done it, and that is through a direct appropriation,” Lee said. “But to use this process as cover for an appropriation from this Legislature for a facility that can’t prove economic benefit, to me is just kind of a ruse.”

The stadium funding program makes available $13 million a year for stadium work, which Lee described as “found money” for the wealthy owners of professional sports franchises.

However, regardless of the fate of Lee’s bill and a House version (HB 233) by Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, no money will be awarded for stadium work this year.

No applications were submitted during the annual filing window at the end of 2018, an apparent sign that organizations have learned that money isn’t moving through the program.

In past years, House leaders have blocked efforts to dip into the funding pool, which has also tempered efforts to repeal the program.

The first year the program was in place, requests to fund improvements at TIAA Bank Field (formerly EverBank Field) in Jacksonville, Daytona International Speedway and Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens and to help build a soccer stadium in Orlando made it through a review by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Lee noted work on those four stadiums was not derailed because lawmakers didn’t go forward with the funding.

“They’ve done the best job of anybody to make the point that these aren’t really economic development incentives,” Lee said. “Every one of those projects has been built exactly as they were originally intended to be built with private-sector capital and no economic support from the state.”

Along with facilities involving the National Football League, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball League, Major and Minor League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the program is open to promoters or hosts of events administered by the Breeders’ Cup Limited and NASCAR.

Before Monday’s meeting, the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity-Florida repeated its support for the repeal of the fund, which it considers a “corporate welfare slush fund” that “puts sports teams ahead of Florida citizens.”

“We hope all lawmakers come together to eliminate cronyism and focus on the essential priorities of the state,” Skylar Zander, state director of the organization, said in a news release, which also advised lawmakers that their votes on the stadium funding proposal would be factored into the group’s annual session grades.

Still, eliminating the 2014 program wouldn’t end Florida’s participation in stadium funding.

Currently, eight facilities in Florida continue to receive money more directly through legislative appropriations — up to $2 million a year for as much as 30 years — that were awarded before the funding pool was created.

As an example, funding for Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, which was awarded under a former tenant, the Miami Marlins, expires in 2023. Since 1994, the stadium has received $51.3 million through the program.

Similarly, TIAA Field in Jacksonville, with a deal that expires in 2024, has received $49.5 million since 1994.

Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and Amalie Arena in Tampa, both drawing money since 1994 with deals that expire in 2024, have each received more than $47 million through the program.

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