- Associated Press - Friday, May 2, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Professional sports organizations looking to build new stadiums or upgrade current facilities could get sales tax rebates under a bill passed Friday by the Florida Legislature.

The fund could help pay for some proposed projects, from a professional soccer stadium in Miami to the renovation of Daytona International Speedway. The Miami Marlins opened a new stadium in 2012. The Tampa Bay Rays have been discussing the idea of building a new stadium to replace the downtown St. Petersburg dome they play in now.

The bill (HB 7095) would establish a pool of $13 million in taxpayer-supported subsidies that could be spent each year, with no team or project receiving more than $3 million a year. The projects must be cost a minimum of $100 million to qualify for the rebate.

The legislation passed the House 89-27 after being amended by the Senate, where it passed 35-3. It now awaits the signature of Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott supported similar legislation that was killed last year and backed it again this session.

“This economic development bill creates a process that measures return on investment to help protect Florida’s taxpayers,” spokesman John Tupps said. “Governor Scott looks forward to signing this legislation.”

“This is a sports facility incentive program,” Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Pembroke Park, said. “The emphasis should be on incentive program. There are no monies guaranteed to anybody. There’s a process you have to participate in.”

He said the state will get a return on its investment in the form of better stadiums, more revenue and a chance to get major sporting events.

Projects totaling between $100-200 million are eligible for $2 million annually. Those surpassing $200 million are eligible for $3 million.

With a $13 million pool, those looking to take advantage of the rebate would be pitted against other projects looking for relief in a competition process.

Opponents called the bill a handout for wealthy owners and questioned how much additional commerce sporting events bring to an area. Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said the community economic development from sports franchises is comparable to a K-Mart.

“We’re committing in perpetuity hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize the economic development of a K-Mart,” Bileca said. “This is not a process bill. This is a funding bill. … Make no mistake, this is not subsidies. This is corporate welfare for billionaires.”

The bill also sets aside $7 million this year to be used before the 2015 legislative session begins. Those applying for that money, mostly likely Major League Soccer expansion franchises and Daytona Speedway, would have to be approved by a budget commission comprised of legislators.

“We appreciate the work done by our government officials and their recognition of the enormous popularity of soccer,” David Beckham said in a statement. The former soccer star is attempting to bring a team in the state. “Today is not only good for Orlando and Miami, it’s great for all of Florida.”

The legislation also states that Major League Baseball would have to change its policy on Cuban players if the Marlins and Rays want a share of the state money set aside for professional sports stadiums. Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder Yasiel Puig’s dangerous escape from Cuba to Mexico was the inspiration for the conditions. Cuban players are subject to the amateur draft if they come directly to the U.S., potentially costing them tens of millions of dollars. That’s why Cuban players seek to establish residency in a third country first, often at great risk.

“This MLB policy benefits human traffickers more than it does baseball,” Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, said in a statement. “Because they have limited avenues of escape, it’s Cuban ballplayers seeking the American Dream who are being thrown into the arms of human smugglers and drug traffickers. That has to change.”



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