Senate bill could set new deadline for final Marlins stadium deal
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade voters could get a chance to weigh in on a planned Marlins stadium if local governments and the team don't ink final deals before summer.
A state senate bill, if passed, would ban government spending on professional sports teams without a public vote, effective July 1.
Legally binding obligations governments agree to before that date would be home free.
The county expects a commission vote on Marlins contracts this month.
A preliminary agreement signed nearly a year ago has Miami-Dade spending $347 million and Miami $13 million to build a ballpark for the Marlins. The team is set to pay $155 million.
The plan was not put up for a public vote.
"I think it's a matter of fairness" to have a referendum, said bill sponsor Sen. Michael S. Bennett of Bradenton.
His measure calls also for some private entities to pay taxes even if their facilities sit on normally tax-exempt government-owned land, as a Marlins ballpark would on the site of the old Orange Bowl in Miami's Little Havana.
The pending Marlins deal could slide home unaffected by the proposed bill.
New County Commission Chairman Dennis Moss said in an interview last month that he hopes to bring final ballpark agreements to the commission in January and to allow "ample time to fully review and to be briefed on all of the mechanics involved in the baseball stadium deal."
The contracts are already six months overdue.
The preliminary baseball pact set a July 1, 2008, deadline to cement final construction, non-relocation, assurance and management agreements.
For months, Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman has pressed the administration for answers to a litany of questions regarding the contracts, including whether there would be a cap on the county's liability in the venture, who would be responsible for potential increases in contract costs and what infrastructure could cost.
She's pressing also to find out whether the public is expected to be the primary source of infrastructure funding.
"If it is, I firmly believe the public should be asked to opine on it so you get a sense of where the commitment of this community is to hundreds of millions of dollars," Ms. Heyman said Monday.
She agreed also with the element of Mr. Bennett's bill that would require some private entities housed on public land to pay taxes.
In tough economic times when dwindling property tax revenues have in part forced millions in budget cuts, "I support looking at it for assessing taxes on the land," Ms. Heyman said.
She has not pledged a "no' vote in the ballpark deal, but "I am matter-of-fact for the vote against it — I'd campaign against it — if I don't get answers," she said.
Officials have blamed delays largely on a legal battle with civic leader Norman Braman, who is suing over the stadium deal and other big-ticket projects but has repeatedly offered to drop the case — which he's now appealing after losses in circuit court — if the governments put the issue to a public vote.
That's what Sen. Bennett seeks.
He dismissed arguments that the team would leave Miami without a new stadium — "call their bluff," he challenged local officials — and that sports venues act as economic drivers.
"There has never been, never, not one, major refereed economic study that has ever shown that a professional sports franchise will pay for itself," he said Monday.
Taxpayer money should be spent not to "subsidize professional sports teams" but to provide needed facilities and services, Mr. Bennett said.
"If we're going to take your money for taxes, then why don't we build roads and infrastructure, put it toward education and healthcare."
Local government has in the past hit up the state for money toward a stadium, asking for $60 million in 2005.
"I just find it criminal that somebody in Miami would think that somebody in the panhandle would have to share the expense of the Miami Marlins baseball team," Mr. Bennett said.
This is not his first attempt to keep government money out of professional sports.
"I've tried this bill for a couple of years," he said, but Miami legislators "have just about always been able to keep it from going forward."
His newly proposed bill, filed Dec. 23, still needs a House sponsor.
From there, it would pass through committees in both arms of the legislature, then go up for a full vote by both the House and Senate.
It would need the governor's OK after that.
Despite past strikeouts and the long process ahead, Mr. Bennett said, "we're going to make another run at it."