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Committee backs sales tax breaks for sports venues

The trio of bills still has a ways to go in a Legislature working with tight finances.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Amateur, college and motor sports won big Wednesday when state Senate and House committees approved tax breaks worth up to $7.3-million a year.

The biggest break -- up to $6-million a year through June 2006 plus another $2-million a year after that -- would go to amateur sports organizations that build arenas or headquarters in Florida. That package, which supporters say could help attract the Olympics to Florida in 2012, was approved by the House Tourism Committee.

"It's clean industry. They build their own facilities so government doesn't have to," said bill sponsor Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Winter Garden.

All three bills have more committees to pass before the full House and Senate consider them. The proposed breaks come during a budget crunch, as state agencies consider social service cuts.

"I'm not going to vote for tax relief yet. Each bill takes more money out of the budget," Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, told Senate Commerce and Economic Opportunities Committee members Wednesday.

One bill's beneficiary is the Homestead Motorsports Speedway, a $52-million track built in 1995 by the city of Homestead with help from private investors including multimillionaire H. Wayne Huizenga. It would get the next biggest break: about $1-million a year for 30 years.

And Miami's Orange Bowl would recoup $300,000 a year for 20 years under a measure sponsored by Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach.

Senators in the commerce and economic committee approved that one with little discussion.

"I did see Miami beat Florida State in that stadium, and that's a tradition I'd like to see for many more years," joked Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples.

In each case, the sports facility would get a rebate on the sales tax it pays. The sports economic development measure pushed by the Florida Sports Foundation, for example, would grant a tax rebate of between $500,000 and $2-million for up to 20 years to qualified amateur sports organizations that come to Florida.

Those organizations must prove they paid twice the amount of the tax break in sales tax and must be in Florida a full year before qualifying for the exemption.

Sports foundation president Larry Pendleton said his group wants to attract national intercollegiate groups as well as track or triathlon associations.

"This will help us in our bid to get 2012 (Olympics)" because it shows Florida is serious about attracting and supporting amateur sporting events, Pendleton said. "We believe this is one of the best tools we can use to generate more tax dollars," he added.

Delegates from Homestead left the Senate commerce and House tourism committees happy: They got almost $1-million in sales tax rebates as long as their speedway pulls in at least that much.

The smallest of the tax breaks, roughly $300,000 a year, would go to the Orange Bowl in Miami. Language in that bill provides a tax rebate for a publicly owned facility that's home to a college football team in a city that, in the previous six years, "has been in a state of financial emergency." That leaves just Miami, and lobbyist Ron Book assured senators that the city won't be able to use the funds for anything else.

"The answer to that is a big, fat N-O," Book said.

"There are not loopholes that would allow the money to be diverted for any other purpose."

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