In a possible blow to financing a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium in Hillsborough County, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran filed a lawsuit against the city of Tampa for what he called an "illegal tax" on hotel rooms.
"To say that this is one of the most egregious cases of spitting in the face of the (state) constitution is an understatement," Corcoran told reporters in Tallahassee on Thursday.
Corcoran was referring to a $1.50 fee that began getting assessed at Ybor City and Tampa downtown hotels this summer to finance marketing efforts for the area. Officials say it will produce about $1 million this year, but could expand to include other hotels in the rest of Hillsborough County.
If the assessment is struck down, it could complicate efforts to finance a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium.
That's because the financing of a new stadium may rely on another source of revenue, an entertainment tax, that could be levied on parts of the county that teem with nightlife and leisure activities. The $1.50 assessment is similar in that it is only charged in Ybor and downtown Tampa.
Asked if the lawsuit could threaten some of the stadium's financing if it is found that an assessment of this type isn't legal, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said that was a possibility. But he also said the assessment isn't intended to finance a new Rays stadium, and Tampa was barely involved.
"It's not a tax," Buckhorn said. "It's an assessment that was requested by the hotels. We don't spend it. We weren't involved in it."
The assessment was requested by a dozen hotels, which sought approval from the City Council. Buckhorn said the county needed council approval before collecting it, but that approval is the extent of the city's involvement.
"It was a favor to the hotels," Buckhorn said. "It is intended to help them."
While it wasn't certain that Corcoran was taking aim at current plans for a new Rays stadium, he did make clear on Thursday that, as he has before, he vehemently opposes any tax dollars for sports stadiums.
Corcoran called the urge to raise public money for stadiums "government gone wild," borrowing a term popularized by Blaise Ingoglia, a Hernando state representative who is the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a Corcoran confidant.
If Tampa wants permission for this a new bed tax, Corcoran said, it needs to ask the Legislature.
Tampa has "engaged in an illegal tax," Corcoran said. "It's collected, maintained and distributed as bed tax language. They have no authority to do that. It's a state jurisdiction. They have to go to the Legislature for permission."
Corcoran told reporters he sees himself as a "guardian at the gate" against encroachments on state law.
"What makes America great?" Corcoran said. "Rule of law matters. The constitution matters. You can't just spit in the face of the constitution and expect society to survive."
But Buckhorn said this was another example of Corcoran's hypocrisy. At the same news conference, Corcoran touted his efforts to get local tourism boards to disclose terms of contracts with private vendors, even if that would expose trade secrets of the companies involved. Corcoran has also championed legislation that would limit powers of local governments to regulate everything from Uber to vacation rentals like Airbnb.
"This attempt to strip local government of its ability to control its own destiny is unprecedented," Buckhorn said. "And it's coming from a party that says a government closest to the people is the most effective. Maybe it's time to get Tallahassee out of our lives."
And while Corcoran has made a show of saving taxpayer dollars in his campaign against wayward local governments, his Tampa lawsuit doesn't come free.
According to a contract between the Florida House and the law firm Bush Ross obtained by the Associated Press, the legal battle could cost up to $50,000.
The law firm is politically connected. It was used by Gov. Rick Scott in the state's lawsuit against the Seminole Tribe. Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe, a partner in the firm, was appointed by Scott as a judge in the 13th Circuit in March.