- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida appears ready to approve multi-million dollar deals to help several of the state’s high profile professional sports teams, but state officials now say they will not decide which team deserves the money.

After years of high-profile defeats for teams such as the Miami Dolphins that are seeking taxpayer help, state legislators promised last year to create a new process to evaluate which pro teams deserve subsidies.

But the Department of Economic Opportunity on Monday put out a lengthy memo contending the new law passed by the Florida Legislature doesn’t require the agency to actually evaluate the first batch of applications now pending.

The state has received requests totaling $255 million that would help pay for improvements to stadiums used by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Miami Dolphins, the fledgling Orlando City Lions soccer team and Daytona International Speedway. The payments would be spread over a period ranging from 15 to 30 years.

The first year total is $9 million, but legislators only set aside $7 million. The new law gives the department, which is the state’s economic development agency, the responsibility of looking at each stadium and professional sports facility proposal to see which one would create the most jobs and have the biggest economic impact for the state.

Department officials, however, maintain that process will not occur until the next time around. Instead they have submitted all four proposals to a legislative budget panel to review - and ultimately decide which ones deserve money this year.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater and one of the sponsors of the bill, said he agrees that the state wasn’t supposed to rank the first batch of applications. But he said that’s only because legislators assumed the $7 million they set aside would cover everybody that wanted help.

“We thought that was enough money,” Latvala said.

One group critical of pro sports subsidies sharply criticized the agency’s decision.

Melissa Fausz with Americans for Prosperity Florida said the position taken by the agency is “highly questionable and contrary to the spirit of accountability that legislators have requested and taxpayers deserve.”

“Why should tens of millions of dollars in recurring state spending go un-scrutinized when the state clearly recognizes the need for accountability of future requests?” Fausz said in an email.

For the past two decades, Florida taxpayers have paid tens of millions to turn the state into a sports mecca. The money has paid for repairs, renovations and construction of stadiums and arenas that are home to professional football, hockey, baseball and basketball teams. The state also has shelled out money to spruce up ballparks used by Major League Baseball teams for spring training.

But an effort to aid the Miami Dolphins in 2013 went down to defeat in the waning moments of the legislative session as some legislators, especially those from South Florida, questioned the validity of aiding the team owner.

Lawmakers returned last year and promised they were creating a new process intended to protect taxpayers so that heavily-lobbied projects weren’t the only ones getting help. Gov. Rick Scott said he was signing the stadium funding legislation into law because it would guarantee the state was getting a return on its investment.


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