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Dolphins clear another committee stop in quest for taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade

The Miami Dolphins have completed another first down in their drive to get taxpayers to pitch in millions of dollars for the team’s stadium renovation. 

Though the clock is running down, the Dolphins’ chances of getting millions of dollars in tax breaks improved Wednesday, when lawmakers on the House Economic Affairs Committee approved the proposal in a 10-7 vote. The bill picked up an amendment reflecting the Dolphins’ pledge to pay back sales tax rebates awarded by the state, after 30 years. 

The team’s drive had stalled in the House, with no hearings since its first committee stop on March 8. Economic Affairs chair Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, made it clear last month that opponents of the tax breaks had been lobbying him to bury the bill. Americans for Prosperity, which gave Patronis an A+ rating in 2011, is circulating a petition telling lawmakers to “End Corporate Welfare for Pro-Sports Teams.”

Patronis eventually voted against the bill, though he said it deserved a hearing and decided not kill it by keeping it off the agenda. 

"It is not appropriate to stand in the way of legislation that another member has put before you," he said.

Patronis said he had not been lobbied by House Speaker Will Weatherford to hear the bill. 

The Dolphins are hoping Miami-Dade County voters will raise the mainland hotel tax from 6 percent to 7 percent to help provide funding for a stadium renovation that could cost about $390 million. The team is also requesting up to $90 million in sales tax rebates from the state of Florida.

 Supporters of the bill, including Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, came to Tallahassee to show their support for the bill and attend the annual “Miami-Dade Days” at the Capitol. Opponents, including Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, also showed up to slam the bill.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, led the opposition of the bill, saying that fiscal conservatives should not be voting for higher taxes and so-called corporate welfare.

 “When we decide we can’t expand Medicaid, when we can’t expand services to victims of domestic violence, when we can’t expand services to the (physically) disabled,” he said, “I hope you take comfort in the fact that you sent $385 million of your taxpayers’ dollars to a for-profit, billion-dollar corporation.” Trujillo estimated that the eventual cost to taxpayers would be upwards of $380 million, once inflation and bonding interest costs are included. The Dolphins dispute that figure.

The Dolphins have made several concessions to try and get lawmakers to sign on to the idea of sending tax dollars to the privately-owned team. 

Among the concessions: The Dolphins have agreed to keep the team in South Florida for three decades, snag at least one Super Bowl by 2017, allow Miami-Dade voters to decide on whether to raise hotel taxes and, possibly, cover the cost of that referendum vote. The team also offered to pay back the principal — not the interest — from new hotel taxes and also pay penalties if the new stadium did not attract a certain number of high-profile sports events over the next 30 years.

In all, the team pledged to pay back about $167 million, including $120 million to the county government and $47 million to the state, by 2043. That covers much of the upfront costs, but not necessarily the cost of interest and inflation.

In the Senate, the team agreed to compete with other sports teams for the tax break, rather than getting it automatically. That language has not appeared in the House bill yet.

All of the concessions are part of the Dolphins’ push to get all the stakeholders on board in time for a May vote by NFL owners who will decide which city will host Super Bowl 50.