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Bush vows to veto cruise tax

The governor's threat leaves the Marlins scouting for another tax to raise baseball stadium funds.

legislature 2000
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By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- On the day the Florida Marlins tossed out the first pitch of their season, Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday announced he would veto a proposed tax on cruises that would have paid for a new downtown Miami stadium for the team.

The heavily lobbied tax bill sailing through the Legislature would have imposed a $4 per passenger per day tax on cruises to help pay for a $400-million retractable dome stadium for the Marlins.

After remaining noncommittal for weeks, Bush suddenly announced he would veto a bill that imposes a tax on cruises to help a baseball team. He disclosed his opposition to the tax in an op-ed piece published in the Miami Herald on Monday and then elaborated at a news conference.

Financing the stadium "on the backs of one of Florida's most vital industries and its employees is bad public policy," Bush said.

Bush's opposition left the Marlins and its lobbyists in Tallahassee looking for another tax to raise money to build a new stadium.

Sen. Ron Silver, the bill sponsor, said everything, including a local sales tax, will be considered.

The cruise tax bill has attracted 60 lobbyists in Tallahassee. It quickly won approval in one Senate committee last week and was scheduled for another vote Wednesday, even though the Miami-Dade County Commission unanimously voted against it. If passed, it would have required a referendum vote.

"We thought the momentum was picking up," said Silver, D-North Miami Beach. "I think the cruise people went to the governor and persuaded him he was their last hope."

Silver said the governor called him Sunday afternoon to tell him he was announcing his opposition.

Late Monday, Silver announced that he will delay consideration of the bill this week while he and other South Florida leaders try to come up with an alternative way to finance the stadium.

Silver said the tax on cruise passengers was originally selected because it placed the least burden on the county's taxpayers.

The governor's decision came within days of a meeting between lawyers from Holland & Knight who represent the cruise ship industry and the governor's legal staff.

Former Sen. Curt Kiser, one of the lawyers who went to the Thursday meeting, said the governor's staff already had some concerns about the constitutionality of the tax.

"We laid out the constitutional problems and the public policy issues and they seemed pretty receptive," Kiser said.

A spokesman for the Marlins said they remain hopeful that folks in South Florida will find another proposal "to make baseball viable in South Florida."

Without a new stadium and a retractable dome, the Marlins cannot succeed because of Florida's heavy rains and wilting sun, said Julio Rebull, senior vice president of the team.

Team owner John Henry has to have a public-private partnership to operate the franchise, Rebull added.

Henry has pledged to return 90 percent of team profits and any appreciation in the value of the team to the community, but cannot fund the entire cost of building a new stadium.

He has agreed to come up with about 20 percent of the cost, a proposal similar to ones in several other areas of the country.

In recent years, every stadium debate in the country has ended in the team's favor. Despite dozens of threats, no Major League team has relocated since the Washington Senators moved to Texas in 1972.

Bush said he changed his mind about the tax after thinking about it over the weekend and decided it was more appropriate to say something now instead of vetoing it later.

"I'm not opposed to the idea of communities having the right to vote on taxing themselves," Bush said. "I think that's appropriate public policy. But this was a chance to tax an industry that could easily move."

Bush said he didn't realize he was announcing his opposition on opening day of the baseball season.

In a written explanation of his decision, Bush said he had fond memories of the Marlins' 1997 season and the team's World Series victory, and finds "nothing more exciting" than the prospect of a new field in downtown Miami.

"But as the governor of the state, a businessman, and a South Floridian, I also have the obligation to weigh in against the financing proposal offered by the proponents of a new stadium and some of my closest friends," Bush wrote.

The cruise industry could easily leave the Port of Miami for other ports to call home, he noted.

"Unfortunately for me, I have many friends who have strong feelings and interests on both sides of the ledger in this debate," Bush said.

"I am also a person who longs for the glory days of Marlins' baseball. But recapturing the magic of 1997 at the expense of our business climate, our residents' livelihood and the integrity of our democratic processes is too great a cost."

- Staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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