ST. PETERSBURG — Public money should never be used for professional sports stadiums unless voters agree to tax themselves.
That's the stance taken by state Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, who filed a bill this week that would require referendum approval before any state, county, municipal or tourist tax money could be used to support professional teams.
The bill would also require owners of professional sports stadiums to pay property taxes, even if that owner is a public body.
"Why should we take tax money and pay for stadiums owned by billionaires who are paying some of their people $40 million a year?" Bennett asked on Friday.
Bennett introduced a similar bill two years ago, but it didn't make it out of committee. Miami-Dade legislators opposed it, he said, because the Marlins were angling for a new stadium.
"I think this is the year to do it," Bennett said. "The economy is in the tank. People don't want their tax money used for frivolous things. There's an antitax mood out there. I think I've got a big shot."
In the Tampa Bay area, where the Rays have angled for a new stadium, reaction ranged from support to outrage.
State Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, said he would vote for the bill.
"In this economy we are in right now, to use your taxes for stadiums, you ought to have a say," Jones said. "We are cutting programs right now that have served our communities for years, like schools. When you see some of the salaries ballplayers are paid … if you can pay that kind of money on salaries, you ought to pay for the upgrade of these facilities."
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said the Rays may eventually need a new stadium, though not anytime soon. If a future financing plan included city tax money, Foster said, that should first be approved by St. Petersburg voters.
In the 1980s and '90s, city taxes financed about 40 to 45 percent of the construction and upgrading of Tropicana Field — without a public referendum. Many voters still seethe that they never got a chance to vote on those deals.
Tourist development taxes, levied on hotel beds and rental cars, "are a different animal," Foster said. They are often critical to stadium construction. They covered about 40 to 45 percent of the Trop costs and also underwrote Raymond James Stadium, the St. Pete Times Forum and area spring training stadiums.
"I don't know that we need the Legislature to dictate to (county) tourist development boards how their tourist taxes should be spent," Foster said. "That's a deal killer for me."
Adding a few million dollars a year in property taxes to stadium operating costs "will change the face of professional sports venues for the entire state," Foster said.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, worried about the bill's impact on spring training, where tourist taxes and other public money built almost all the state's stadiums. And municipal owners of those stadiums don't pay property taxes.
Latvala compared Bennett's bill to Gov. Rick Scott's recent decision to reject federal funding for high-speed rail.
"There is a proven, unquestionable economic development impact of spring training stadiums," he said. "This has been a bad week. We are rolling up the sidewalks on ourselves as a state."
Spring training "is part of our heritage and quality of life and recruiting tourists during the month of March. If you drive around Dunedin, you will see a tremendous number of Canadian license plates from people who come down to see the Blue Jays. They eat in restaurants and sleep in hotels. All of which adds jobs. That would certainly have a chilling effect on job creation."
Asked about spring training, Bennett acknowledged that Florida has recently lost teams to Arizona cities that built facilities.
"How many baseball teams can Arizona support?" he said. "You really think any team is going to give up a major media market like Tampa Bay or Miami? I'd call their bluff. If they say they are going to leave, I would say, "Don't let the door hit you in the butt.' "
Craig Sher, a Sembler Co. executive who has advocated for building the Rays a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area, called the bill ludicrous.
The property tax exemption, which lowers the cost of stadium deals, "is a no-brainer," Sher said. "If a public body owns a facility, I can't think of another case where they would have to pay property taxes. You build schools. You build performing art centers that the public doesn't get to vote on. Isolating sports facilities is wrong."
If St. Petersburg or Tampa or any local government wants to hold a referendum before committing public money, that's fine, Sher said. "But let's not mandate a referendum. If we want to keep sports here in our community, mandates like that tend to drive people away. We should do everything we can to keep them here. Not push them away."
Rays executive Michael Kalt declined to comment.