tampabay.com

Delegation uninterested in Rays' wish

The team wants a $60M subsidy for stadium.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 5, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - The Tampa Bay Rays need a pair of state lawmakers to spearhead their push for a $60-million state subsidy for a new stadium.

But that prospect, in this tax climate, is more daunting than it seems.

The overwhelming majority of the Rays' hometown lawmakers - the 12 members of the Pinellas County delegation that would be most likely to push the team's interest - sound unwilling or uninterested in aiding the Rays when contacted by the St. Petersburg Times this week.

The Rays are seeking an annual $2-million sales tax rebate for 30 years from the Florida Legislature.

Of the 11 members the Times reached, none said they were likely to sponsor a subsidy bill for the Rays. Most, in fact, said they were hesitant to support the subsidy even if it was sponsored by someone else.

"Put me down as a no," state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island. "Not a maybe. A no."

"Do you think they're going to get another $60-million in today's tax environment?" asked state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. "I'm speculating no."

The lack of support among Pinellas legislators is an obvious sign of trouble for the Rays' plans in Tallahassee. If the team is unable to convince its hometown delegation, how possibly could it win over legislators in Jacksonville, Gainesville and other parts of the state with no ties to the St. Petersburg baseball club?

The team says the subsidy is not critical to its ambitious proposal to transform Tropicana Field and part of the downtown waterfront. But they also concede that they wouldn't be asking for the money if it wasn't important.

"The timing couldn't be worse," Jones said Thursday, after listening to dozens of social service groups plea for state funding in 2008. "Maybe in 10 years things will be different, but right now everywhere we go people are talking about property taxes and insurance. I can guarantee you they're not worried about a baseball stadium."

In their request, the Rays are running into problems past and present.

The team already benefits from a $60-million state subsidy, which helped pay for renovations to Tropicana Field. The Rays are asking for a second subsidy to help fund the construction of a new $450-million stadium on the site of Al Lang Field along downtown St. Petersburg's waterfront.

The money, as its proposed, would come from the sales taxes generated on game days at the new ballpark.

But legislators consistently have hesitated in awarding a second sales tax subsidy. The Florida Marlins for years have sought a subsidy to build a new stadium but lawmakers have balked because the team's current home - Dolphin Stadium - already benefits from a rebate.

The current statewide budget crunch only compounds the team's problems.

"I don't think you're going to see stadium legislation this year," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who oversees economic development spending in the Senate. Last year he supported a plan to give a similar, second subsidy to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The team may be able to attach their request to a subsidy bill for another sports franchise. The Marlins, who appear close to a stadium deal that does not require state support, aren't expected to seek a subsidy during this spring's legislative session. But the Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay Lightning may.

Either way, it's going to take significant political muscle to accomplish, legislators say.

"It's going to have to be Gov. Crist putting it on his shoulders and pushing it through the legislature," said state Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg. Crist is one of the few politicians to openly support the Rays' proposal.

Crist's muscle needed

The team may be able to attach their request to a subsidy bill for another sports franchise. The Marlins, who appear close to a stadium deal that does not require state support, aren't expected to seek a subsidy during this spring's legislative session. But the Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay Lightning may.

Either way, it's going to take significant political muscle to accomplish, legislators say.

"It's going to have to be Gov. Crist putting it on his shoulders and pushing it through the Legislature," said state Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg. Crist is one of the few politicians to openly support the Rays' proposal.

The team in November announced that it wants to build a $450-million, 34,000-seat stadium on the site of Al Lang Field. In their plan, money would come from three sources: the state, the team and the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.

Besides the approval for funding necessary from the city, county and state, the team also needs to win over city voters because the proposed ballpark sits on the protected waterfront. A voter referendum tentatively has been scheduled for November.

The Times reached out to each of the 12 state elected officials who represent at least a portion of Pinellas County. State Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, did not return calls seeking comment.

Of the others, only Fasano said he has even spoken with the Rays. Fasano said he had a brief conversation with Brian Ballard, the Rays' lobbyist in Tallahassee. State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said Rays officials have called his office to schedule a meeting.

"They have to come forward with something that's pretty powerful," Kriseman said.

"They're going to have to have a great story," said state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole. "And a winning team would be good, too."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

 

Other voices

A look at what other local legislators had to say about the Rays' push for a state sales tax rebate. 

"I haven't focused on it. When they're ready with a complete financing proposal, I suppose they'll come and show it to me."

Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, a Rays season ticket holder


"The fact that the average citizen is having trouble paying taxes and insurance on their property, I'm disinclined to support any sports bill that would take money away from revenues that could help the citizens."

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa

 

"There's so many good projects out there that need funding. On my list of priorities, I can't put that on the top of my list. I'm not saying I would never support it. But I wouldn't support it at the moment."

Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs

 

"I'm kind of interested in what's wrong with the current stadium. I love going there. I also have some real concerns about parking downtown."

Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole

 

"I think it's going to be difficult for anyone at the state level to support it."

Rep. Tom Anderson, R-Dunedin

 

"It would be nice for the city to have an open air stadium. But how that comes together will be very interesting. I'm always a little concerned about taxing our citizens in any way."

Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg