Published: Sunday, May 7, 2006
Section: Metro & State
Page: 1B



A $60 million tax subsidy to build a new Florida Marlins stadium - sought by the baseball team since 2000 - died just before midnight Friday as crestfallen Miami-Dade lawmakers powerlessly watched their colleagues in the House chew up time debating other legislation.

There was plenty of blame to go around on the final day of the two-month lawmaking session: From the parliamentary tactics used by both opponents and proponents to worries about corporate welfare and insurance troubles to an odd speech in the Florida House of Representatives about the fabled battle of Thermopylae.

The defeat in the House was a cruel twist for the ballpark's backers who noted that, until Friday, the Senate was the subsidy's death chamber. This time, three Miami-Dade senators swiftly and secretly stitched together the plan and the votes only three days before the end of the session - a late maneuver that helped to doom the plan, which even the Marlins knew nothing of.

``From what I saw, the House was not being respectful of the promise that they would take it up,'' said Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Republican from Hialeah, where the Marlins are interested in building the retractable-roof ballpark.

``I was appalled. We finally had a vehicle. We finally had a plan to get this done. I helped walk the bill over myself,'' Garcia said. ``But as soon as I saw the House speaker, he smiled at me and turned away. I felt a chill.''

Tick. Tick. Tick.

There were 17 minutes left in the session, and Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, was speaking about a big insurance reform package, sponsored by Garcia in the Senate, for the state-run insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance.

Brown's long speech covered every aspect of the bill, which calls for big rate increases. He urged lawmakers to have courage like that of the outnumbered legion of Greeks who died while holding off Persian invaders at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

Tick. Tick.

The House soon approved the insurance bill at 11:45 p.m. Next up: a cancer-drug donation bill. It had a controversial final-day amendment attached that weakened strict guarantees to ensure prescription drug quality, said opponent Rep. Mark Mahon, R-Jacksonville.

Mahon spoke against the bill and instantly felt the glare of Rivera and Miami Republican Rep. J.C. Planas. ``I didn't realize what was going on,'' Mahon said. ``People get irritated when it's 11:55 p.m. and you're in the way of their bill.''


Miami's Marco Rubio, who is to succeed Panama City's Allan Bense as House speaker this year, spoke to his fellow Republican at the podium. The cancer-drug bill passed at 11:59 p.m. despite Mahon's entreaties.


The gavel fell.

``It's midnight. We're done,'' Bense said.

Bense later said he wanted to vote for the bill, but it arrived too late. He said there was no way to extend the 60-day lawmaking session because many in the Legislature wanted to go home.

Planas said he didn't think Mahon was trying to sabotage the Marlins.

``He felt passionately about the issue and he was right to say what he said. For us, the Marlins bill was a rally in the ninth inning when we were down by five runs. The other team made a good catch at the end and that was that,'' Planas said.

``To quote The Godfather: This is the business we chose.''

And the business of the Legislature follows its own timetable. Throughout the last day, the House and Senate stopped and started amid the backroom negotiations of the insurance package. The Marlins proposal was still being hammered out.

Under the proposal, either Miami-Dade County or the city of Hialeah would have built the $430 million stadium, which would have received $2 million annually for 30 years.

The subsidy is part of a state program governing the seven existing tax breaks for ballparks. Teams that show they can generate more than $2 million annually in sales tax collections get that amount of money from the state. And once a team qualifies for the subsidy, it gets the money even if it doesn't generate the $2 million in tax money in future years.

The Marlins, under previous owner H. Wayne Huizenga, won the subsidy already. So the new bill allowed the team and any other sports franchise to receive the subsidy twice, but only with future legislative approval. The bill also sought to make sure the money was not rebated to a team if it didn't generate $2 million in sales tax collection.


When the proposal hit the Senate, Sen. Jim King, an opponent of the ``corporate welfare'' of sports teams subsidies, was one of the first speed bumps.

``If you think this is anywhere near the end of the dipping into the public coffers to support sports franchises, you're crazy,'' King said.

King also pointed out the ``absurd'' appearance of sticking insurance customers with higher rates while giving tax breaks to sports teams.

The Legislature, though, did approve a subsidy bill for baseball spring-training facilities and a guaranteed $60 million tax break for the Orlando Magic basketball team. But senators refused to add the Marlins to that bill. Instead, they added the Marlins language to a stand-alone Magic subsidy bill, which became worthless once the Magic was given the subsidy in the spring-training legislation.

In protest, Rep. David Riviera, R-Miami, cast a protest vote against the spring-training bill.

``The moment the Senate stripped the Orlando Magic away from the Marlins,'' Rivera said. ``I thought South Florida was being set up.''

Staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Gary Fineout and Jennifer Mooney-Piedra contributed to this report



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