TALLAHASSEE — Whether it’s the corporate welfare derided by opponents, or the public investment that team owners tout, this year’s line for state money to help build Florida sports complexes started at the Capitol.
The unanswered question of local interest is whether the Tampa Bay Rays will ever step up. The team has been flirting with leaving St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field and building new digs — maybe in downtown Tampa.
Rays president Matt Silverman isn’t saying. Questions directed to him last week got a response from spokesman Rick Vaughn, who said the club had no comment.
The state’s online disclosure report shows the team has no registered lobbyist in Tallahassee this year.
Some Tampa lawmakers contacted by the Tribune didn’t respond to messages left at their offices or wouldn’t talk about a new stadium.
“I believe it’s important that the Rays remain in the Tampa Bay region,” said Republican Rep. Dana Young, the state House’s deputy majority leader, whose district includes downtown Tampa.
“Until the team and the city of St. Petersburg come to an agreement on alternate sites and procedures, I have no further comment,” she said.
Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, said he was unaware of any specific public-financing goal by the Rays, but added, “I’m not in favor of tax subsidies to build stadiums.”
Given the costs of stadium-building, “for the Rays, it would be a smart idea to get involved in any process that could get them some public money,” said Rick Eckstein, co-author of the book “Public Dollars, Private Stadiums.”
A new home for the Rays in Tampa could cost in excess of $500 million.
Whether the Rays want in or not, the line in Tallahassee is getting longer.
The leading bill, which had been zipping through the Senate, would direct state sales-tax dollars toward improvements at Daytona International Speedway.
Its companion measure in the House, however, has been shuffled among four different panels since being filed more than four months ago and still hasn’t gotten a hearing, records show.
Last year, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross went home empty-handed when House leadership slammed the door on state financing of his stadium renovation project at the close of the legislative session.
This year’s Senate bill is almost guaranteed to be dead on arrival in the House, too.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, now says the only way teams should get money is through a competitive process, yet to be created, in which the franchises will have to make a case.
“I think all these deals should be dealt with individually,” he said. “They should have to go to the Department of Economic Opportunity just like any economic development project would. They have to justify that the state is going to see a return on investment.”
A bill to create such a process will soon come out of the House’s Economic Affairs committee, spokesman Ryan Duffy said, though one hasn’t yet been introduced. Funding could come as a rebate on sales tax taken in at sporting facilities.
Others left in the cold last year include the Jacksonville Jaguars and the city of Orlando, then looking to land a Major League Soccer team. Local officials later decided to divert tourist tax revenues toward construction.
And the new soccer team in Miami, backed by retired star David Beckham, also wants a state subsidy to build a stadium.
But publicly financed stadium deals tend to fall short of the economic boosts that club owners often promise, Eckstein said, based on research over the last 15 years.
“They’re bad deals for municipalities … yet they keep doing them,” said Eckstein, a sociology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “They’re great deals for sports teams. For taxpayers, they’re not a good deal.”
That’s why teams have started playing down financial benefits to cities and states. Instead, they talk about “intangibles,” such as boosting civic pride, or what’s now called “community self-esteem.”
“Sports has this sort of cultural aura,” he said. “If this was public financing for a supermarket, there wouldn’t be the same support around it. Sports has a hold on us.”
From 2000 until 2008, 28 major sports stadiums were built across the country at a cost of more than $9 billion, with $5 billion of that funded with public dollars, according to a study published by the University of Utah.
The state already directs up to $2 million a year in sales-tax dollars to each of eight major league sports centers: Sun Life Stadium in Miami-Dade County, EverBank Field in Jacksonville, BB&T Center in Broward County, American Airlines Arena in Miami, the Amway Center in Orlando, Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, and Raymond James Stadium and the Forum in Tampa.
As of last month, the total payout to the centers equals $267.2 million, according to state Department of Economic Opportunity records.
The Amway Center, home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, was the most recently approved funding deal, in February 2008. The others were approved in the 1990s.
The process bill that Weatherford now says he wants was largely what he got last year from the Senate — and turned away.
The Dolphins bill sent over in the final days of the last session allowed professional sports teams to vie for a share of state tax dollars — a pot that was worth up to $13 million a year. That measure died in the House.
Ross lashed out at Weatherford, saying he broke a promise to let the bill onto the floor for a vote. Weatherford said he made no such promise.
Late last May, the speaker also posted on his blog, noting that the House version of the “Dolphins Stadium deal” had failed to pass its last committee, that it had no support from Miami-Dade lawmakers, and that a local referendum was shot down by Miami-Dade voters.
“The voters spoke … and so did the Legislature,” Weatherford wrote.
In remarks to the Associated Press last year, Weatherford said “the fact that it wasn’t just the Dolphins” also complicated matters.
With several teams looking for a tax rebate, “that’s serious public policy,” he said. “You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and I think the House just never got comfortable there when the session ended.”
Though he often defers publicly to his committee chairs, Weatherford’s comfort level is still at issue.
“As opposed to funding any stadiums this year, it would be my preference that we pass a process bill that allows all the stadiums that are out there and want to have a partnership with the state — they have to prove the value of that partnership,” he said last week.
But, Weatherford added, “I’m the speaker; I have one of 120 votes. My hope would be that we pass a bill that treats everybody the same and that there’s a consistency across the board.”
Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, is shepherding the Daytona Speedway bill. The renovation project it would fund has been billed as a job creator.
International Speedway Corp., which owns the speedway, is putting up close to $400 million in addition to the proposed $60 million from the state.
The project includes new entrances, expanded entertainment concourses, increased refreshment and concession areas and wider seating. It’s expected to be completed by January 2016.
Hukill didn’t respond to a request for comment.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.