Column: The case against spending state tax dollars on sports stadiums

Published Jan. 24, 2017

Editor's note: Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, responds to the Times' Jan. 8 editorial, "The case for sensible spending on sports, movies."

The Sports Development Program began in 2014 with the well-intentioned idea to create a vetting process for a program that uses sales tax dollars to help build or improve stadiums. In order to receive state funding, teams were required to demonstrate the economic impact their project would generate. Seems fair enough. But unfortunately, as the bill progressed, the vetting process was watered down until it became little more than a rubber stamp to help legitimize giveaways.

I'm sponsoring legislation this spring that would repeal this program because it is an ineffective underwriting tool and was not designed to spur economic activity. It was written merely to give cover.

First, the Sports Development Program makes money available for projects with a start date on or before Jan. 1, 2013. How can tax rebates for dollars invested four years earlier meet any sane definition of economic stimulus? They can't. That's the definition of a giveaway.

Second, times have changed. Florida is now the third-largest state, and Tampa Bay is the 11th-largest media market in the country. This isn't 1976 (the year the Tampa Bay Bucs started playing) or 1996 (the year the Community Investment Tax was passed by Hillsborough County voters to build Raymond James Stadium). Sports teams want to be in our region and in our state thanks to a robust business climate, unprecedented growth, lucrative media markets and some of the best fans in the nation. We don't have to pay them to come here.

Finally, this law has proven to be unnecessary. Three years after the Sports Development Program passed, not a single dollar of the $390 million available for these teams has been released, yet all four of the projects that applied and were denied funding are either complete or are under construction. The Miami Dolphins' stadium renovation is finished. The Daytona International Speedway has been renovated. The Jumbotron has been installed at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, home of the NFL's Jaguars. A private investor has stepped up to build the stadium for Major League Soccer in Orlando.

We can't ignore who's the big winner here. It's the team owners and their stakeholders who benefit. Team values have skyrocketed. The Bucs, purchased for $192 million in 1995, are now worth a staggering $1.8 billion, according to Forbes' latest forecast. It's time we ask ourselves why sports teams in our state get privileged treatment by the Legislature while small businesses are left to fend for themselves.

Eliminating the Sports Development Program would by no means prevent teams from asking the Legislature to consider their circumstances on a case-by-case basis. In fact, stadiums or arenas for eight professional teams across the state (the Marlins, Jaguars, Rays, Lightning, Panthers, Bucs, Heat and Magic) are currently receiving a monthly payment of up to $166,667 over a period of 30 years. That's a whopping $480 million total.

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With the challenges we face funding quality education and the exploding cost of delivering health care to the neediest Floridians, it's hard to justify spending additional tax dollars on sports teams. That doesn't mean that we don't like having them here, or that they don't enhance a community. But government needs to set priorities and the burden to fund these billion-dollar enterprises should not be placed on Florida's hardworking families.

Sen. Tom Lee is a Brandon Republican and former Senate president.