TALLAHASSEE -- A proposal to give tax subsidies annually to more professional sports stadiums got sweeter for Central Florida Thursday, as lawmakers added language allowing projects already underway to get ahead of the line for tax dollars.
Both the House and Senate are nearing floor votes on plans to require stadium tax-subsidies to go through a new competition process for $13 million in annual sales tax rebates in which the Department of Economic Opportunity reviews and ranks them based on their economic impact.
But the Senate Appropriations Committee amended its stadium bill (SB 1216) Thursday to allow projects started after July 1 to compete for $6 million in annual incentives and not have to return to the full Legislature next year for approval.
That helps Florida's professional soccer fans kick-start financing for new stadiums in Orlando and Miami, as well as potentially steering money to the Daytona International Speedway expansion underway.
That potential time-savings is critical for Orlando’s $85 million Major League Soccer stadium and the $400 million Daytona Rising development.
By securing a $1 million sales-tax rebate in the coming fiscal year, Orlando can proceed with a larger, $110 million soccer palace with more amenities.
Central Florida senators, including Sens. David Simmons and Andy Gardiner, along with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and other Major League Soccer backers have been pushing to let projects like the future Orlando City Soccer Club MLS team compete for state dollars without requiring the Legislature to later sign off on the tax breaks.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said he wants the projects to come back to the Legislature for final approval even after the Department of Economic Opportunity analyzes them.
The language adopted Thursday tries to dance between those positions, setting aside $6 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year and requiring the projects already underway to go to a joint budget committee instead of the full Legislature.
The bill requires projects to otherwise get reviewed by DEO, which will report back to the Legislature by Feb. 1. Lawmakers in the March-April session would then decide whether to fund them.
The bill was also amended to mirror changes the House made earlier this month to open up the competition to include rodeos, minor-league baseball, and a semi-professional soccer league with a team in Tampa.
Not everybody was happy with the heftier package of projects.
"This bill has it goes through the process invariably picks up amendment after amendment designed to do nothing but meet the existing business model of the sports … and get people to do things they were otherwise going to do," Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said at the hearing.
“It’s nothing but found money.”
But Gardiner said the measure still created a better process for handling the crush of lobbyists from sports teams who every year ask for tax dollars.
“Nothing’s perfect," Gardiner said. "I think you’re going to be very pleased to have a list that has been vetted by someone other than the people who are paid to be up here to get money.”