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As lawmakers move for vote on Dolphins stadium tax, poll says it's unpopular

About 73 percent of likely Miami-Dade voters oppose a Miami Dolphins tax-break plan for stadium improvements, according to a new poll obtained by the Miami Herald that indicates the issue is politically damaging for lawmakers.

The poll was instantly criticized by the Dolphins management and lobbying Wednesday just after the club's plan won unanimous approval from a state Senate committee in Tallahassee to cover nearly half of the $400 million stadium improvements.

But legislators knew SB 306 faced tough times in the anti-tax Legislature, so they amended the bill to require a local referendum.

If it makes the ballot, the plan will be killed by Miami-Dade voters, said pollster Dario Moreno.

"This is toxic to the Legislature, the county commission and the executive," Moreno, a Florida International University political scientist, said.

Opposition to the plan cuts across racial, ethnic, party and geographic lines, according to the poll of 1,000 voters taken Monday and Tuesday.

"There's not one group of likely voter who supports this idea," he said. "Even in County Commission District 1, where the stadium is, people are overwhelmingly opposed."

State Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat who represents the stadium's hometown of Miami Gardens, said the deal will bring jobs.

"This is going to be a great economic boon to my community and to the state of Florida," said Braynon.

To make sure that happens — and to prevent a veto should the bill pass the Legislature — Gov. Rick Scott issued five guidelines Wednesday he will use to approve the stadium deal. He wants a study to review the cost to be sure the Dolphins pay their fair share.

"The most important thing is I'm responsible to make sure taxpayer money doesn't get wasted and so, if we can get a return on those dollars, then that's important to me. I want to do the right thing for taxpayers," Scott told the Times/Herald on Wednesday.

The Miami Dolphins say they're already on the path to meeting those goals.

The club's president and CEO, Mike Dee, also issued a written statement suggesting that the poll Moreno asked misleading or unfair questions.

"A ginned-up poll paid for by a mystery client that goes out of its way to lead people to a negative position is hardly enough to sway us from our efforts to put this issue in front of voters this spring," Dee said.

However, Moreno's poll wording appeared straightforward. Moreno also gave the Herald access to the so-called crosstabs of his polls that indicate the sample size, questions and responses by party and race.

The Dolphins shared only one result from one of their polls, conducted by a group called OnMessage Sports, that showed 59 percent of voters approved of the plan and 33 percent of voters disapproved. The poll's website indicates its polling company is OnMessage media, which worked for Scott's 2010 campaign for governor and his anti-Obamacare effort before that.

But the club didn't share its crosstabs and the favorable result came from a so-called "message-testing" poll where voters are given leading information — the very type of technique the Dolphins criticized Moreno for using. They also called him "Norman Braman's pollster," because Moreno has worked for the outspoken car dealer who has used his millions to oppose publicly financed stadiums and the politicians who support them.

Overall, in Moreno's survey, nearly 61 percent of people polled strongly oppose the measure, while nearly 12 percent simply oppose it. Only 17 percent support or strongly support it.

Poisoning the Dolphins effort: The unpopular Miami Marlins baseball stadium deal, which led to the recall of former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, Moreno said.

"These are recall numbers," he said. "What they tell you is Miami-Dade County has not yet recovered from the Marlins deal. And I think people are very reluctant to give public money to a private sports team."

Dolphins vice president Nat Moore on Wednesday subtly brought up the Marlins, without naming the ball club, during an appearance at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

"If every time you did one bad business deal, you decided to never do another deal, you'd go out of business,'' Moore said. "Don't hold anything against our deal."

Moore received big applause when he mentioned Wednesday's approval by the Senate Finance & Tax Committee.

The Dolphins are asking for the mainland hotel tax to increase from 6 percent to 7 percent, as well as up to $90 million in sales-tax subsidy rebates, paid out over 30 years. The $3 million annual sales-tax break would be in addition to $2 million in annual payments SunLife Stadium is already receiving.

Altogether, taxpayer money would help fund about half of the costs for the $400 million renovation.

A key point for the Dolphins: The ownership, including Palm Beach billionaire Steve Ross, is paying for more than half of the cost of the improvements. The team is a Miami icon. Also, the Dolphins say, the NFL will be less likely to host a Super Bowl in Miami Gardens if the old stadium isn't improved.

Miami-Dade's legislative delegation hasn't made the Dolphins stadium a priority bill.

The Dolphins stadium isn't a must-pass bill for the House speaker or Senate president, neither of whom is from South Florida. And lawmakers from outside South Florida have relatively little incentive to spend time and energy on a measure like this during a 60-day lawmaking session where they have a short window of time to get their bills passed.

Also, a majority of legislators are Republican, and many worry about votes that could allow potential conservative opponents in a primary to attack them for casting votes that allow taxes to rise — even though these taxes would be paid by hotel guests and fans at the stadium, not by rank-and-file taxpayers.

Meanwhile, in Miami-Dade, the Dolphins effort might have already done political damage. Moreno's poll shows that 49 percent of likely voters believe the county is on the wrong track, while about 28 percent think it's on the right track.

"That sentiment is partly a result of the Dolphins plan," Moreno said. "By going to the commission and getting support for this, it really soured people's view of the county. It looks like business as usual."

Moreno, who has polled for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said he had simple advice for lawmakers: "Don't support this."

Gimenez said he has his doubts about the Dolphins deal as his administration negotiates with the club.

"These numbers don't surprise me," the mayor said. "The Marlins deal is the elephant in the room. It poisoned any effort like this for any future sports franchise. Before this poll, we didn't even know if we were going to reach an agreement with the Dolphins. Now the path is even tougher."

Miami Herald staff writers Doug Hanks, along with Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet, contributed.

As lawmakers move for vote on Dolphins stadium tax, poll says it's unpopular 03/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 7:21pm]
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