TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State Sen. Mike Bennett has been complaining for the last six years that taxpayers shouldn't have to help professional sports teams pay for new stadiums.
The Bradenton Republican has repeatedly tried — and failed — to get the Florida Legislature to pass a bill that would require voter approval before taxpayer money could be used to help pay for stadiums or help pro teams.
Last summer, however, Bennett came up with a new angle.
He discovered that back in the late '80s state lawmakers included a provision into state law that says that sports stadiums and arenas are supposed to be utilized by local governments for homeless shelters. The provision was reportedly put into place by the late Sen. Jack Gordon, a Miami Beach Democrat.
Bennett says that hasn't happened. So he wants the stadiums and arenas — and the sports teams that use them — to return as much as nearly $275 million they have received from the state over the last two decades. The provision would impact pro teams like the Orlando Magic, Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Panthers, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We have spent over $300 million supporting teams that can afford to pay a guy $7, $8, $10 million a year to throw a baseball 90 feet, I think that they can pay for their own stadium," Bennett said.
A Senate panel on Monday backed Bennett when it voted unanimously in favor of his bill which would require the teams to refund the state all the money they have received by the end of the year if they can't prove the stadium has been used as a homeless shelter.
Bennett also added another twist: He included on Monday a provision being pushed by fellow Republican Sen. Mike Fasano that would fine any sports franchise that receives public support and allows its games to be blacked out on local television. The $125,000 fine would then be used to purchase tickets for foster children and members of the military so they could attend games.
The National Football League is the only professional league that requires blackouts. The NFL policy applies to stations within a 75-mile radius of where the game is played if all tickets are not sold 72 hours in advance of kickoff. NFL officials have defended the policy as a way to help NFL teams sell tickets.
It's unclear how far the bill will move this session since professional teams have been successful in past years opposing legislation that would take away or end the state's tax subsidy program. Florida pays up to $2 million a year to stadiums and arenas that have deals with pro sports franchises. There is also a similar program that offers up to $500,000 to spring training facilities.
The argument behind the tax subsidies is that it is an economic development incentive meant to entice sports franchises to lock in long-term deals to stay in one location.
Ron Book, a lobbyist who represents Sun Life Stadium, the home to the Dolphins, contends that Bennett's bill would not apply to many South Florida sports teams because counties there have homeless plans in place and a dedicated source of funding.
Bennett, however, said that pro teams need to realize that it is difficult for state lawmakers to vote to cut state funding for education and health care at the same time it is paying millions to professional sports teams. He even warned that he has already talked to an outside lawyer about the possibility of a class-action lawsuit against the franchises.
"Since they always want to talk about sportsmanship and playing by the rules, we want to find out if they really want to play by the rules," he said.