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Lawmakers advance bill to fine sports teams for not housing the homeless

Back in 1988, Florida legislators passed a law that would allow sports stadiums to collect about $2 million per year from the government to build new shiny stadiums that would increase economic investment and improve the quality of life.

Tucked into the statutes is an obscure homeless shelter provision, which has mostly been ignored for 23 years, and could be a $300 million “Oops” for stadiums, arenas and spring training facilities across the state.

The law states that sports teams that accept taxpayer dollars to build facilities must house the homeless on off-nights, and lawmakers have brought it back from the dead in a pair of bills gaining steam this legislative session.

Senate Bill 816, which would make teams and stadium owners return millions of taxpayer dollars if they can’t prove that they’ve been operating as a haven for the homeless on non-event nights,  passed its first committee in the Senate on Monday with a unanimous vote.

There was some charged language aimed at taxpayer-supported sports franchises during the hearing:

“We have spent over $300 million supporting teams that can afford to pay a guy $7, $8, $10 million a year to throw a baseball 90 feet. I think they can pay for their own stadium,"  said Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, who is sponsoring the bill.  “I can not believe that we’re going to cut money out of Medicaid and take it away from the homeless and take it away from the poor and impoverished, and we’re continuing to support people who are billionaires.”

The teams, which include the Tampa Bay Rays and the Miami Heat, receive about $166,000 per month for a period of 30 years. Some stadium owners have already accepted more than $30 million in tax credits, and could be on the hook to refund that money if the bill passes. Based on the dozens of homeless people who sleep on the street two blocks west of AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami, it doesn’t appear that a homeless shelter is functioning at the glitzy home of the Miami Heat.

The new Miami Marlins new stadium also received large amounts of taxpayer funding in a controversial deal that has received severe criticism. It is unclear whether or not the Little Havana ballpark will operate a homeless shelter when it opens this spring. 

Bennett also slipped in a late amendment that would punish teams that black-out games played in taxpayer funded stadiums. 

The proposal would fine the team $125,000 for each game that was blacked out, and use the money to purchase sports tickets for foster children, active military members on leave and the less fortunate. The amendment passed unanimously.

After passing the Community Affairs Committee, the bill faces three more stops in the Senate before heading to the floor. A companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, has not yet been taken up for a vote. 

Below is a list of sports facilities that have received taxpayer money: