TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would enable professional sports franchises to compete for sales tax subsidies cleared a major hurdle Friday, winning overwhelming support in the Florida House.
The tax breaks would be available to professional football, basketball, hockey and soccer teams, as well as professional rodeos and NASCAR-sponsored events.
But baseball teams would have to stay on the bench — unless Major League Baseball changes its rules about Cuban baseball players.
Lawmakers added the stipulation in response to media reports that Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig had been held hostage by human traffickers while trying to establish residency in Mexico in 2012.
Under Major League Baseball rules, players from Cuba must live in another country before they can become free agents. Cuban players who come directly to the United States are forced into the amateur draft, which limits their salaries.
"Major League Baseball (has) inadvertently created a market for human smuggling and the unequal treatment of Cuban baseball players," said Rep. José Félix Díaz, R-Miami, who introduced the provision with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. "We're not going to give away our taxpayer dollars until this ill is corrected."
In response, the MLB issued the following statement:
"While the sponsors of the bill in Florida blame MLB policies for the role of human smugglers, they do not provide any support for their premise that Cuban players must rely on traffickers to defect to countries other than the U.S. such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but would not need the assistance of traffickers to reach U.S. soil.
"However, we will meet with the Players Association (union) to determine whether changes can be made to our international signing rules to reduce or eliminate the reliance of Cuban players on criminal organizations when leaving Cuba," the statement continued. "We also intend to speak to the U.S. State Department about actions that the U.S. government can take to reduce or eliminate the trafficking of Cuban baseball players. We hope that the legislators in Florida will do the same."
The measure is part of a larger bill (HB 7095) that would make $12 million in annual subsidies available for stadium renovation and construction projects.
Professional franchises could apply for as much as $2 million in annual tax breaks. The Department of Economic Opportunity would rank the applications based on their potential economic impact, and state lawmakers would decide the winners.
The payments would last up to 30 years.
There would be a catch, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, explained: "If (teams) do not (generate) the amount that they are supposed to have provided back to the economy, they are obligated to pay the difference back plus a 5 percent penalty."
Franchises that leave Florida would also have to return the money, Patronis said.
The bill comes one year after the Florida Legislature refused to provide taxpayer support for a $350 million upgrade of the Dolphins' Sun Life Stadium.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he would not consider funding for individual projects this year. But he supported the creation of a process for distributing future subsidies.
Gaetz, who has opposed proposals like the Dolphins bill, said this year's sports stadium package would "help create jobs and help our state be a great destination for sports franchises."
But Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, was skeptical.
"If we enact this into law, 2015 is going to the first annual tax break Olympics," Rodríguez said.
The bill passed by a 93-16 vote.
In addition to Rodríguez, six lawmakers from Miami-Dade voted against the proposal: Reps. Frank Artiles; Michael Bileca; Manny Diaz., Jr.; Kionne McGhee; José Oliva; and Carlos Trujillo.
The Cuban baseball player provision had widespread support.
Diaz said the measure would force the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays "to be in solidarity with us — to fight with us — and to say that our taxpayers don't want their dollars to go to human smugglers and human traffickers."
It would also require Major League Baseball to inform the state attorney general about any potential smuggling activities.
The Senate version of the bill (SB 1216) does not include the baseball language. But Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she planned to propose a similar amendment next week.
The Senate bill has another notable difference: It allows projects that are already underway to compete for $6 million in tax breaks next year without receiving approval from the full legislature. That could potentially apply to the soccer stadium retired player David Beckham hopes to build in Miami.
The Senate version cap the annual subsidies in subsequent years at $13 million. The maximum each franchise could receive would be $3 million.
Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.