Florida Senate revives push to have taxpayers give millions to help pro sports teams

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Backers of Florida's professional sports franchises are mounting a drive in the waning moments of this year's session of the Florida Legislature to help out three teams and Daytona International Speedway.

A Florida Senate panel on Tuesday tacked a provision into an economic development bill that would guarantee taxpayer money to the racetrack and the stadiums used by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and the Orlando City Lions.

The proposals would cost the state $255 million and would be paid out over the next two to three decades. A legislative panel was supposed to approve the funding requests for the teams back in February but a vote on the item was delayed at the urging of some top Republicans.

Sen. Jack Latvala, noting that legislators voted during the 2014 session to create a new process that would allow professional sports franchises to tap into taxpayer help, defended trying to get help for the teams during the session.

"We have to put it into play," said Latvala, a Clearwater Republican. "Last year we overwhelmingly adopted the mechanism. Now it appears just one or two people have stopped the whole process. And you know it's a democratic process and the majority is supposed to rule."

It's not clear if the legislation (SB 1214) will pass by the May 1 deadline. It heads next to the full Senate.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, the House budget chief and a Republican from Pasco County, said he could not understand setting aside money for sports owners while legislators have a stalemate over health care funding. The House and Senate budgets are currently $4 billion apart and the session will likely end next week without a vote on a new state budget.

"I don't understand how you can claim to have a fiscal crisis on health care but can find millions of dollars in subsidies for billionaire sports owners," Corcoran said.

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 was defeated in the waning moments of the legislative session as some lawmakers, 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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