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Politics

Lightning shoot for tax break

By ALEX LEARY
Published January 30, 2007


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photo
[Times file photo (2005): Dirk Shadd]
"It’s an uphill battle to provide assistance to sports teams," Lightning president Ron Campbell acknowledged Monday.

TALLAHASSEE -After failing last year in a final hour bid to get a $60-million tax break, the Tampa Bay Lightning is trying again.

Team officials are back in Tallahassee pressing the case and two lawmakers are drafting legislation.

"It's an uphill battle to provide assistance to sports teams," Lightning president Ron Campbell acknowledged Monday. "But I do believe that with continued persistence and education, we will continue to gain supporters."

Lightning officials want to rewrite current state law that gives professional teams an annual $2-million rebate in sales tax revenue. They want the new law to provide for an additional $2-million annually over 30 years .

That amounts to $60-million in new aid for each team venue that meets certain qualifications.

The money could go only to the sports facility, for improvements from new seating to playing surfaces.

All nine major professional sports franchises in Florida could seek the benefit, from the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Florida Marlins and Orlando Magic.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is drafting the bill and points to provisions that require any franchise, should it leave Florida within 15 years, to agree to reimburse the state for future payments the venue would receive.

"I wanted to make sure that if we're going to dish out money for economic development, whether it's for Home Depot, the Lightning or the Marlins, that those tax dollars are spent responsibly," Fasano said.

"This is a taxpayer security measure as much as it is an economic development measure," said Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, who plans to sponsor a bill in the House.

The Lightning argues that it is an important force in the economy of downtown Tampa and should share in some of the riches.

The St. Pete Times Forum alone generates $7-million annually in sales tax revenue on everything from concessions to replica player jerseys, Campbell estimated.

That does not count tax revenue on hotel rooms, restaurants and bars near the Forum. The St. Petersburg Times pays for naming rights to the venue.

"We're just asking to get a slice of some of the dollars we generate," Campbell said.

A similar pitch helped persuade Hillsborough County commissioners to agree last summer to spend up to $35-million in future tourist tax dollars for renovations at the Forum, which is owned by the county.

By accepting the money, the team agreed to stay at least four years and would face financial penalties for leaving before 2020.

Tax breaks for sports teams are not an easy sell.

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 he was double-dipping because the stadium had already received money in 1991 to attract the Marlins.

Times have changed for the Marlins. Not only would the franchise benefit under Fasano's bill but Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, has separate legislation to help the Marlins get a new ballpark.

Gov. Charlie Crist recently said he supports helping the Marlins, noting that sports venues benefit not only owners but the people who sell hotdogs and parking.

The Lightning came close to getting the aid last year. The bill passed the Senate in the final minutes of the 2006 session and was sent over to the House. But time had run out - literally - and the session came to an end.

[Last modified January 30, 2007, 10:20:58]


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