Sports teams face rebate roll backs over homeless shelters

Professional sports teams in Florida may have to return millions in tax money under a proposal now moving in the Florida Legislature. James Call reports a Senate committee Monday voted in favor of a bill that would force teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Marlins and Orlando Magic to give money to the state if a homeless shelter has not been set up in the facility

Lawmakers were caught by surprise when Bradenton Senator Mike Bennett told them about a law passed 24 years ago. Tucked inside an economic development bill passed in 1988 is a provision requiring sports facilities subsidized by the state to serve as shelters for the homeless.  The novelty of the idea appears to dawn on Jacksonville Senator Stephen Wise when he questioned Bennett.

"Are we really using the Amway Center in Orlando to have a homeless shelter in there?  I mean if you went to the football field or baseball facility where do they put the homeless people?  And how do they do that? Are they really doing that?

Bennett: "It’s an interesting law isn’t it?"  

Faced with a billion dollar budget shortfall that is forcing layoffs and cutbacks in almost every service the state provides, Senator Bennett is going after the subsidies teams use to pay for new and renovated  arenas, stadiums and fields. Bennett’s bill directs the state Auditor General to verify that a homeless shelter has been operating at the sports facility.  If not, the county and professional team would be required to return the money advanced to the team by the end of this year.

"I think the biggest hit would probably be the Marlins, I think the Marlins have about a $32 million hickey out there. When I’m looking at trying to cut money from Medicaid, and I’m trying to cut money from education, and I’m trying to cut money for other things that are desperately needed,  I think they should be able to participate too.  I want to give them a chance to do good."

Since 1988, when the sports facility/homeless shelter law went on the books, Florida has provided more than $271 million to teams to build facilities.  Jacksonville Senator Audrey Gibson wondered how a team could prove they are in compliance with the law.

"I’m trying to understand would that be a written agreement, or what’s the proof that the franchise must show that it has adopted a homeless shelter or is working with homeless programs?"

Bennett: "The statue shows that they had to submit a homeless program. If they had not submitted that then they are not in compliance."

The homeless provision is part of a plan the grants teams a $166,000 a month in tax credits to renovate/build facilities. Ten baseball spring-training camps and eight professional sports teams have participated in the program. The homeless shelter provision of the bill has gone unnoticed until someone, he says an attorney friend, pointed it out to Bennett.

"You look at the professional sports franchises keep going back to the taxpayers the people of the state of Florida, asking them for money but they give nothing back. And it just kind of irritated me. I’ve been rallying against this year for years, and lo and behold someone brought it to my attention that this statue had been put in in 1988 and they have chosen to ignore it and we looked at it and said, is there a way to enforce the law? And I think the laws of the state of Florida should be enforced."

Bennett also sponsored an amendment that would revoke most of the tax credits if the telecast of a home game is blacked-out locally.  The money would provide tickets to kids, combat veterans and charitable organizations. 

"They would still get a little tax break of around $41,000. But we think there are a lot of deserving children out there who would like to go to those professional sports franchises and see those games and since your taxpayer’s money is going to support this $166,000 they get every month then I think it’s fair that a lot of those children of those taxpayers get to go to the game."

The proposal passed out of committee with an 8- to-zero vote. It has two more committee stops. In the House Miami Representative Frank Artiles has filed a companion bill.