Florida Legislature orders economists to rank stadium and pro sports projects

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida's legislative leaders are ordering their own economists to rank and evaluate proposals to hand out millions in taxpayer money to professional sports teams.

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 as well as Daytona International Speedway. The payments would be spread out over anywhere from 15 to 30 years.

But the state's main economic development agency contended earlier this week that the new law authorizing the payments doesn't require any ranking of this first batch of requests.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, however, is disputing that viewpoint, saying that legislators expected the Department of Economic Opportunity to look at the economic impact of the projects and recommend which ones deserve funding from the Florida Legislature. The department reports directly to Gov. Rick Scott.

"For whatever reason, DEO believes they are not under an obligation to provide that information to us," Crisafulli said in a statement Friday. "It would be a great disservice to ask members to vote on these projects without an objective ranking."

The rankings are crucial because lawmakers set aside only $7 million for the first year of the new grant program. The four requests total $9 million, meaning one of the requests will have to be denied.

A spokeswoman for the department insisted the agency followed the law.

Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner are now going to have their own chief economist rank the proposals over the next few weeks. Crisafulli said that the rankings should be done before the start of the annual legislative session in March.

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 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. 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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