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House moves forward with proposed revamp of stadium incentive program

As House Speaker Will Weatherford knows, any bill involving tax dollars and a professional sports stadium is sure to spark controversy.

Weatherford wants to avoid the drama this year. 

So instead of considering bills drafted for individual stadium projects, he wants the House to create a process that would allow sports franchises to apply for sales-tax rebates.

On Monday, the House Economic Affairs Committee threw its support behind a proposed committee bill that would do just that.

"We all remember what we dealt with last year with the stadium bills," said House Economic Affairs Committee Chairman Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City. "They all sounded good. We were fed a bunch of facts. What we’ve done now is we are forcing those facts to become transparent based on a bunch of standards."

Most members of the committee agreed.

“All we are trying to do is put a process in place so we can look at opportunities that come before us,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach.

Voting against the proposal: Reps. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, and Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

None spoke out against the merits of the bill.

In order to qualify for the tax subsidies, sports franchises would need to propose construction or renovation projects valued at $100 million or more. At least half the funding would have to come from private investors.

Each project would need the blessing of its local municipality. And its leaders would have to commit to hiring Florida firms and residents.

The Department of Economic Opportunity would rank the proposals, but state lawmakers would ultimately have the authority to dole out a maximum of $12 million in annual subsidies. Each project would be limited to $2 million.

Certified applicants could receive annual payments for as many as 30 years.

The bill would specifically allow Major League Soccer franchises to apply for the subsidies. That’s welcome news for soccer advocates in Orlando and Miami. MLS has already awarded a new franchise to Orlando, and retired footballer David Beckham is looking to bring a team to Miami.

Miami Dolphins lobbyist Ron Book said he, too, liked the bill.

Book said he was “still licking some wounds from a year ago,” when the Florida Legislature rejected a proposal to provide taxpayer support for a $350 million upgrade of Sun Life Stadium.

Book said the proposed committee bill was not the Dolphins’ idea. “But we are here in support of it because we do believe that last year, we started a dialogue on a bill, on a process, and a lot of that is contained in the bill,” he said.

Book suggested some technical tweaks to the proposal. He voiced concern about language that would require franchises to reimburse the state if they fell short of their incremental sales tax targets. Still, he called the measure “a good start for a product to move us forward to create sports economic development opportunities for the people of Florida.”

Other speakers disagreed.

"The opinion of the taxpayers of this state remains unchanged," said Abby MacIver, of the conservative political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. "They are opposed to subsidizing professional sports teams."

MacIver said she feared the new program would lead to more franchises applying for taxpayer support.

Eight Florida franchises are already receiving state incentives.