Why money for Lightning arena upgrades can’t go to teachers

Hillsborough County may spend $61 million to upgrade Amalie Arena over the next 20 years. Why not give that money to teachers? 
Hillsborough County may spend $61 million to upgrade Amalie Arena over the next 20 years. Why not give that money to teachers? TIMES STAFF
Published December 6 2017
Updated December 6 2017

TAMPA — On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Hillsborough County were working on a deal to keep the team at Tampa through 2037.

As part of the proposal, the county will put $61 million into upgrades at Amalie Arena, the home of the Lightning, during the next 20 years.

Immediately, a lot of readers asked the question: Why isn't that money going to teachers?

In case you haven't heard, Hillsborough County teachers are fighting for a pay raise they say was promised to them years ago. The Hillsborough County School Board and Superintendent Jeff Eakins have so far said that they can't afford it.

And yet, here's $61 million in Hillsborough taxpayer money for stadium improvements. Surely, some of that could go toward teacher salaries.

Actually, it can't. Here's why.

For starters, Hillsborough County schools and Hillsborough County government are run by two entirely different elected bodies with separate budgets with separate tax levies. Their work rarely intersects. They don't meet in the same building, have the same staff or even coordinate with each other.

In fact, some Hillsborough County government officials have complained how little influence or cooperation they have with the school board. But this is the system of government set up by the state.

It's also worth noting that the $61 million won't be spent all at once. Rather, the money is being set aside for qualifying improvements to Amalie Arena over the next 20 years.

But let's put that aside for a second and look at where the money for the stadium improvements is coming from.

Hillsborough County is paying for these stadium upgrades with something called the Tourist Development Tax. It's a 5 percent tax collected on each night's stay at hotel, motels, or other short term rentals, so it mostly comes from visitors.

The tax brings in about $30 million a year.

Florida state law dictates how this money can be spent by governments. It is limited to three categories of expenses: beach improvements, tourism marketing and advertising, and capital expenses on tourism facilities, like museums, convention centers and, yes, stadiums.

(And no, Apollo Beach Elementary School doesn't qualify as a beach.)

Given all that, even if Hillsborough County government leaders decided they wanted to contribute county Tourist Development Taxes toward teacher salaries, it would be prohibited by state law from doing so.