Legislators take right stadium path, a guideline for county
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade's state legislators got priorities right last week when they sidelined tax-funded upgrades for the Dolphins' stadium in listing their top aims.
Of all of the needs of Florida and our county, improving this privately owned venue out of taxes has no legitimate claim to the most-wanted list.
Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce executives showed their own priorities in putting stadium tax funding on their own legislative priority list last week. But then, they're among very few supporters who've yet to repudiate the Marlins stadium deal.
Now a last-minute referendum is planned to let county voters endorse a deal to spend taxes to aid the Dolphins.
No matter what the lineups of key players, however, this stadium clash has yet to be played out. Lobbyist Ron Book is correct when he's quoted as saying it's the first quarter of a long game.
Also like a football game, the outcome is unlikely to mirror what we've seen so far.
Legislators around the state might sign onto the Dolphins' team in a deal to also support their hometown sports venues, which are lining up with the Dolphins for funding. Legislation that funnels money to sports around the state might win enough backing to pass if the Dolphins alone lack the firepower.
That would be a mistake, because public money has far more vital uses.
Yet it's understandable that sports could trump greater needs — if you call privately-owned facilities for private profit a state need at all.
It's understandable because sports exert emotional appeals on lawmakers that the homeless and friendless don't, that the undereducated and poorly housed don't, and that transportation and water and sewer lines can't.
On my office walls hang art of three sports facilities. I have no pictures of rusting sewer pipes or traffic jams or high school dropouts. Do you?
We'd like an upgraded stadium. It would improve infrastructure, just as would hundreds of other upgrades around town.
The difference is that the gain at a stadium goes mostly to the owner, whereas better bridges or transit or schools or water lines belong to us all, pretty much equally.
As the legislative session rumbles toward a May 3 finish, stadium backers should be looking at a game plan that works even if legislators wisely keep priorities straight and use funds for greater public needs.
As Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez discusses with the Dolphins how to fund a stadium upgrade, undoubtedly he'll look beyond taxes and leaning on tourists whose money would otherwise go to hotels and restaurants and shops and attractions instead of a stadium they'd probably never see.
Other than looking for Other People's Money that's really ours, the mayor's team might probe industrial revenue bonds that the team could repay from receipts of an upgraded stadium, or to some other form of borrowing that doesn't rely on county funds if the team can't pay.
Perhaps they'll look at turning stadium ownership over to the county, as we've suggested. Maybe they'll provide the Dolphins funds for the team to repay annually at higher interest than the county now gets for money it banks for very short times, stitching those funds together as a loan.
The team and the county can always unite to urge the National Football League to expand loans it gives teams for infrastructure upgrades.
And, heaven knows, a man worth more than $4 billion like Dolphins owner Steve Ross probably can raise a few bucks himself, either by selling a slice of the team or by getting outside loans repayable by team revenues that he himself could guarantee were there a shortfall.
He could do that, mind you, unless he agrees with county commissioners that it's best to use Other People's Money. In that case, he himself probably qualifies as Other People where the county is concerned.
The deal the Dolphins handed the county is their best-case scenario. We respect that.
At the same time, it's far from the best case for public policy.
If the legislature doesn't grant Mr. Ross's requested tax breaks, referendum or not, the game isn't over. When we take sales and bed taxes off the table, it merely becomes a blank slate upon which to sketch a new deal.
The team won't just give up. If the county really wants a stadium upgrade, as many of us do, it doesn't have to give up either. Other People's Money is the easy way — even if the money really belongs to us. But it's not the only way.
Nor, however, is this a must-do for the mayor. A must-do deal at county hall was how we got an atrocious Marlins stadium deal. You can't make a good deal when you have a gun at your back and the other side knows it.
Remember, the issue isn't the stadium upgrade. Everybody favors one.
The issue is who pays. In the end, any deal for upgrades must be a win-win whereby taxpayers aren't funding a stadium somebody else owns.
There are good ways around that. It's those roads the dealmakers should follow.
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