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House, Senate approve stadium bill

The Florida Legislature on Friday approved a bill that would allow professional sports franchises to compete for sales tax subsidies.

The proposal passed with a provision that would benefit three construction projects, including the soccer stadium retired player David Beckham wants to build in Miami.

It was a relief to Beckham, who travelled to Tallahassee to push the measure.

"We appreciate the work done by our government officials and their recognition of the enormous popularity of soccer," he said in a statement.  "Today is not only good for Orlando and Miami, it's great for all of Florida."

Lawmakers spent the final day of session last year debating whether to provide state funding for renovations at SunLife Stadium. (They declined.)

"Last year, the stadiums were a contentious issue," said Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City said. "They were not going to go away."

So this year, Patronis and others insisted on creating a process for doling out facilities dollars.

The bill that won approval from the House and Senate establishes an expedited process for three new projects: the soccer stadiums proposed for Miami and Orlando, and the renovations for the Daytona International Speedway.

The three could share in $7 million in tax breaks next year. A legislative budget panel would approve the state funding.

Beginning in 2015-16, a total of $13 million would be available to professional football, hockey, basketball and soccer teams, as well as NASCAR events and professional rodeos. 

Baseball teams could also compete, but only if Major League Baseball eliminates its requirement that Cuban baseball players establish residency in another country before becoming free agents. Florida lawmakers say the practice has driven numerous Cuban athletes into the hands of human traffickers.

Each team could receive as much as $2 million in annual subsidies for up to 30 years.

The franchises would need to apply for the money. The Department of Economic Opportunity would rank the proposals, but the state legislature would make the final call.

Teams would be forced to return the money if they generated less sales tax revenues than anticipated or left the state.

Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, blasted the plan as "corporate welfare for billionaires."

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, called it "a subsidy and a giveaway."

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, was particularly bothered by the provision for new projects, saying it was added "because [lawmakers] already have intentions for spending that money."

But Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami, said the investment would spur economic development.

"No one can dispute that the famous team we have in Miami, the Heat, does not raise attention and bring tourism to the community," he said.

And Rep. Joe Gibbons noted that no single franchise was guaranteed to benefit.

"There are no monies guaranteed to anybody," said Gibbons, a Hallandale Beach Democrat.

The bill passed in a 89-27 vote.

The proposal has an uncertain fate in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott supports economic development projects and job growth, but must also worry about alienating conservative voters before the 2014 election.