Sports funding bill now law; Palm Beach County stadium still uncertain

Palm Beach County’s effort to build a two-team spring training stadium got a boost Friday from Gov. Rick Scott’s signing of a bill meant to help professional sports organizations, including professional soccer and NASCAR, get access to public money to pay for building new stadiums or upgrading current ones.

But the stadium bill (HB 7095), which sweetens the existing financing options for constructing spring training stadiums, might not be enough to build the kind of facility the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals want. The county still is waiting to hear back from the teams after telling them in May they need to reduce their preliminary $141 million price tag for a stadium in West Palm Beach.

The measure was one of 57 bill signings Scott announced Friday. Others include a high-profile bill (HB 59) that increases criminal penalties for offenses against unborn children; another (SB 850) that expands the pool for Florida’s corporate tax credit private-school voucher program from poor children to also include those in middle-income families; and one (HB 513) that re-establishes the criteria for the honorary position of State Poet Laureate.

The stadium bill marks the second consecutive year that lawmakers have passed legislation encouraging the return of Florida as a major spring training destination.

“It’s a home run for the county, no pun intended. It gives them a real shot at drawing the Astros and another team for spring training,’’ said Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist hired by the Astros to help push the legislation.

“Now there’s really no excuse for the local governments not to make this work out. The state’s commitment is solid. The legislation is never going to get any better than it is now. It would be shame if whoever is in (local) government can’t get this put to bed, because it’s teed up perfectly.’’

A year ago, in an effort to revive Florida’s reputation as a spring training destination, lawmakers passed a financing package that made up to $50 million available to any county that agreed to match the funds for a two-team spring training facility. The law provided $20 million in matching funds for a single-team facility.

But county officials said the financing structure imposed by the 2013 bill made it impossible to build a stadium. In particular, state money for a two-team stadium would be spread over 37 1/2 years, and each yearly installment would be subject to approval by the Legislature as part of the annual appropriations process.

The 37 1/2 years is longer than the typical duration of a public bond issue and, because the money must be appropriated each year, it isn’t considered a guaranteed revenue source for the purposes of a bond issue, county officials said. After lobbying by Palm Beach County officials, this year’s bill fixed that by changing the payout period for a two-team stadium to 25 years and dropped the annual legislative approval.

“I clearly think that the legislature was smart enough to realize that the terms that they put together last year didn’t work for teams,” said Palm Beach County lobbyist Todd Bonlarron. “To their credit they recognized that quickly and made changes and this shows there is a commitment.”

The county has Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter for the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, but county and West Palm Beach officials have been in discussions with the Astros and Nationals about building a shared spring training facility on 160 acres south of 45th Street between Haverhill Road and Military Trail.

At a meeting May 13 with city and county officials at the county Governmental Complex, Astros owner Jim Crane and Nationals general partner Art Fucillo put the cost of their stadium at around $140 million, county Mayor Priscilla Taylor said Friday.

Besides the $50 million in state money made available by the law Scott signed Friday, the teams were counting on another $50 million from a county tourist tax on hotels. That would still leave $40 million in construction costs that the teams, county or city would have to come up with.

“When our staff and everyone looked at it, they thought it was a little too much for us to take on,’’ Taylor said of the teams’ initial proposal.

Crane and Fucillo agreed at the May 13 meeting to try to refine their proposal and meet again with local officials, but no date has been set.

“Hopefully they will work something out, but so far we have not heard from them. I think it has been over a month,” Taylor said.

Team representatives declined to comment Friday, but a source close to the negotiations said the teams are still working on a new proposal.

Scott’s bill signing on Friday “at least puts us in a better position if we are able to come to some agreement,’’ Taylor said.

“I think we all really want to work with them,” she said. “I know the city of West Palm is interested as well, but I know the two teams have to work it out and see what they can come up with.”

The spring training clause is just a small part of the stadium law, which sets up a new process for deciding which of the many sports proposals the state receives should get funded. The law establishes a pool of $13 million in taxpayer-supported subsidies that could be spent each year, and requires the state Department of Economic Opportunity to evaluate economic viability and rank funding proposals for sports projects before lawmakers are asked to approve the sales-tax dollars for multimillion-dollar construction projects and improvements.

Projects that cost more than $200 million to apply for up to $3 million a year in funding for 30 years. Projects worth between $100 million and $200 million could apply for up to $2 million a year, and those between $30 million and $100 million would be eligible for up to $1 million a year.

It law also make $2 million available for Daytona International Speedway and expands professional sports eligible for such funding from baseball, football, hockey and basketball to also include Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League, NASCAR, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, hosts of the Breeders’ Cup horse races and minor-league baseball facilities

However, it temporarily shuts out Major League Baseball until its draft requirements for players defecting from Cuba are revamped, but this clause does not apply to the spring training stadiums.

Some lawmakers decried efforts to give money to billion-dollar sports leagues as “corporate welfare.” Proponents described it as a “sports facilities incentive program.”

Another controversial part of the bill would require Major League Baseball to allow Cuban players to bargain with teams as free agents as players from other countries do, rather than competing in the amateur draft. Unlike players from other countries, Cuban prospects are required to establish residency in another country in order to negotiate with major league clubs as free agents.

That portion of the bill came in response to the plight of Cuban-born slugger Yasiel Puig, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who was smuggled out of Cuba to Mexico to avoid the draft, only to be held hostage by the smugglers.

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