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Lightning may score tax rebate

The plan to help keep three pro sports teams from bolting the state faces opposition.

By ALEX LEARY
Published April 17, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE -- A $540-million proposal to help Florida's professional sports teams is being scaled back to include only the Tampa Bay Lightning and two other franchises.

Instead of a $2-million annual sales tax rebate good for 30 years, the Lightning, Orlando Magic and Florida Marlins would each get a one-time payment of $32.6-million.

The reworked proposal -- reflecting political reality in a tight budget year -- was expected to be unveiled this morning before the Senate committee on Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations.

But Sen. Rudy Garcia, the sponsor of the bill, indicated late Monday that he wanted to postpone the discussion, though it wasn't entirely clear why.

"It's an innovative idea for economic development," said Garcia, R-Hialeah.

But the bill has critics even in its scaled-back form.

Given budget constraints, "how can we possibly offer additional enrichment to multimillionaires?" asked Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. "Anybody who can afford to give a professional athlete $30- to $40- to $50-million to throw a baseball 90 feet can sure fix their own stadium."

The teams see things differently.

"I'm somewhat encouraged because legislators are looking at the risk franchises face and trying to get something done," said Lightning president Ron Campbell. "From that standpoint, we're very appreciative of being included."

Campbell said the team would put the money toward building parking facilities with up to 5,000 spaces.

That would offset a shortage in downtown Tampa, he said, and provide a revenue source to the team.

"Most importantly, we would make a commitment not to leave the state," Campbell said. "We don't want to leave, but the business has to be viable. Unfortunately, it has not been viable."

Garcia, who has long sought money for the Marlins only, said he included the Lightning and Magic at the request of Sen. Mike Fasano, the committee chairman.

"They are the three franchises that have come to us asking for assistance," Fasano said.

He said all three teams have shown a commitment to invest their own funds in the stadium, and noted they would have to give back some of the money should they leave the state.

Representatives from the Buccaneers and the Devil Rays both declined to comment.

Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was behind the broader plan to give $60-million to each of Florida's nine pro franchises in the form of a sales tax rebate.

Most of those teams already get $2-million annually.

But while even Gov. Charlie Crist voiced support for the teams, the prospect of a $540-million tax rebate may have been politically difficult this year.

Like the earlier proposal, the reworked plan would require the Lightning, Magic and Marlins to use the money to improve their playing venues. The money could be used to support the sale of bonds.

The bill calls for the money to come from the state's general revenue and pass through the state Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.

The teams would have to apply to the agency and prove they generate at least $4-million annually in sales tax.

The municipality or county in which the team resides would have to pass a referendum after holding a public hearing on the application.

And teams that leave the state would have to pay back the difference between the $32-million and the amount of sales tax it generated for the state.

[Last modified April 16, 2007, 22:27:25]


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