When it comes to funding professional sports facilities, Sen. Mike Bennett wants to take Florida out of the game.
The Bradenton Republican has filed Senate Bill 630, which would put an end to state funding for things like spring training baseball parks and big league stadiums.
Local governments could still help finance such facilities, but only if local voters approve the expense via a referendum.
If passed, SB 630 would put a roadblock in front of plans like the one advanced here last year, which called for as much as $15 million in state funding coupled with an increase in the local tourist tax, without a referendum, to lure Chicago Cubs spring training from Arizona to Collier County.
Similarly, last June Lee County commissioners approved without a referendum $75 million in bonds backed by the tourist tax to build a new spring training complex for the Boston Red Sox.
“It’s a matter of fairness. If you can pay someone $52 million to play the game of baseball, certainly you can build your own stadium with your own money,” Bennett said.
Bennett makes no qualms about the fact that the Florida Marlins baseball team is the focus of SB 630. The team is in the process of building a new stadium in downtown Miami relying heavily on city and county support. Bennett expects a push for a state contribution once the Legislature’s session begins in March. “They are trying to find some money for the Marlins stadium,” he said.
The team has sought state backing for its new stadium for years.
Likewise, Bennett has filed a bill banning such support in previous sessions.
Neither effort has passed.
This time, Bennett believes the stalemate can be broken in his favor. The coalition of Miami-area lawmakers who’ve spearheaded the pro-Marlins contingent is breaking up. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio, for example, has been elected to the U.S. Senate and state Rep. David Rivera is now a member of the U.S. House. Bennett has ascended to the rank of senate president pro tempore, a position that should help him advance his agenda.
The sour economy should also work in his favor, he concedes. “How can you take a guy in the Panhandle, who works for living, and raise his taxes to give the money to billionaires? People are scrambling. You just can’t do it,” Bennett said. “There is no reason a sports team should not pay their fair share, and if exemptions are given, they should be voted on by those citizens affected.”
Beginning in 2004, the state extended offers of $60 million in sales tax rebates to the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of Major League Baseball. Five Major League spring training venues were eligible for a total of about $50 million in tax rebates through the same legislation.
The state gave the Marlins $60 million in tax breaks in the 1990s to help modify then Joe Robbie Stadium to host baseball.
Bennett says that’s enough. “The Marlins are looking for multiple dips at the well and I’m not interested in giving them multiple dips at the well,” Bennett said, quickly adding, “And I like the Marlins.”
Bennett’s bill would not effect the state’s promotion and support of existing spring training operations through its tourism office.
A companion bill identical to Bennett’s has been introduced in the House by Rep. Fred Costello, (R-Ormond Beach).
Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten