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Lightning

Lightning seeks tax double dip

The hockey team's owners say they deserve another $2-million a year in state tax rebates because of the money they bring in.

By ALEX LEARY
Published January 27, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - The owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning want to rewrite state law to double the sales tax rebate for professional sports teams, saying the extra $2-million each year is needed to maintain an attractive venue and keep the defending Stanley Cup champions in Florida.

Officials with Palace Sports & Entertainment, which owns the hockey team, have approached several lawmakers with a proposal to update the 1988 law that allows teams that build or renovate a stadium to recoup a total of $60-million in sales taxes over 30 years.

Palace officials say the change is needed because the $2-million annual payment is out of date in an era when professional sports teams create huge tax revenues in their host cities.

"We generate an awful lot of economic impact we don't get to share in," Lightning president Ron Campbell said Thursday.

So far, no lawmakers have introduced the Palace proposal into legislation.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was among those who were approached. The enthusiastic Lightning fan, whose office in the state Capitol is dotted with memorabilia, doesn't plan to help out.

"It's probably not the most popular thing to do because we've got some people struggling in the state," Fasano said, noting sharply escalating home insurance and gas prices. "I think the last thing we want to do is give private businesses that already enjoy a tax exemption another tax exemption."

All of the venues used by professional sports franchises in Florida - the Miami Heat, Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins, Florida Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay's other teams, the Devil Rays and Buccaneers - would be eligible for the extra tax break.

Campbell said other teams have expressed an interest in the idea, but he wouldn't name supporters and other teams reached by the Times on Thursday said they weren't familiar with the plan.

Rebates for professional teams in Florida have their origin in St. Petersburg.

In the late 1980s, when the city was courting the Chicago White Sox, the sales tax rebate was created and then extended to basketball, football and hockey.

This isn't the first time an owner has tried to change the terms. In 1997, Miami Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga created a firestorm when he tried to rewrite the law and collect a second $60-million to renovate Pro Player Stadium. Critics said Huizenga was double-dipping because the stadium had already received the money in 1991 to attract a team, the Marlins.

Palace officials say they have crafted a more palatable proposal. Campbell said it would close a "loophole" in the existing law that, he said, requires the state to keep paying the tax rebate to a sports venue or stadium, even if the team leaves town.

Under the law Palace has proposed, teams that leave would have to cover half of the tax payments the state was due to make to the venue for however many years are left in the 30-year contract. For example, if a team left after 10 years, it would have to pay $40-million.

"It takes the risk away from the state," he said.

The math is easy, Campbell added. Hockey games and other events held at the St. Pete Times Forum generate far more than $2-million in sales tax on everything from hotdogs to replica player jerseys. In 2004, the year the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, Palace Sports generated $7.5-million in sales tax revenue for the state.

"As you generate more sales tax, you can take some of that back into the machine and grow what you have," Campbell said.

All the additional money would have to go back into the sports venue, Campbell said. He said the Times Forum (the newspaper pays for the naming rights) needs a litany of improvements, from better seating in the upper decks to escalators and ice cooling equipment.

The team said improvements would also be aimed at attracting college basketball tournament games and big concert acts - all of which they say add to the area's economic well-being.

Team officials stressed they have no plans to leave Tampa, but noted the pressure sports franchises everywhere feel.

"We're working real hard to stay here, and that's why we're going with all this energy," Campbell said.

If the proposal does pick up a supporter to introduce it as legislation, resistance would still be stiff. Last year, Senate President Tom Lee blasted a request by the Florida Marlins for more money.

Lee, R-Valrico, had not heard of the Lightning proposal Thursday.

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Damian Cristodero contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at 850 224-7263 or aleary@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 27, 2006, 01:22:12]


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