The clock is ticking on the Miami Dolphins’ quest for a taxpayer-supported stadium renovation, as the Florida Legislature is struggling to come together on a deal in the waning days of session.
The Florida Senate again postponed debate on the tax-break package on Friday, and the House has refused to move without approval of the bill in the Senate.
“We’ve been waiting for three weeks,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who may have the final say on whether the Dolphins receive the tax package. “We’ve been hearing that it’s going to come over [from the Senate] for several weeks and we haven’t seen anything yet.”
State Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who is sponsoring the bill, said negotiations are ongoing between the two chambers, and he still hoped to reach a deal in the last five days of the legislative session.
“No, we’re not panicking yet,” he said. “Five days is a long time.”
The Dolphins have also expressed confidence that a deal would be struck before the clock runs out, allowing the team to move forward with an upgrade of Sun Life Stadium and hopefully snag Super Bowl L.
“We are fully confident that the Legislature will act,” said team spokesman Eric Jotkoff. “There’s a lot of time left in the legislative session.” Added Dolphins CEO Mike Dee: “News [reports] of our demise are greatly exaggerated.”
If the bill passes the Legislature, Miami-Dade voters will get their say in a May 14 referendum on whether to increase the mainland hotel tax rate from 6 percent to 7 percent. That would bring in up to $289 million for the team to rebuild its stadium.
If voters don’t approve the increase, the plan is dead.
The Dolphins have spent nearly $5 million to pay for the referendum, and absentee ballots have already been sent out.
The team’s stadium renovation could cost more than $350 million, and the Dolphins have agreed to pay back some of the tax dollars after 30 years.
The bill, SB 306, would also allow sports franchises to get an additional state tax break of up to $3 million annually for up to 30 years.
SB 306 has moved through the Senate with little trouble, but some Miami-Dade lawmakers in the House have tried to kill the bill. The House budget chairman refused to hear the bill in his committee, effectively stalling it in that chamber.
The bill was scheduled for a hearing on the Senate floor Thursday, but has been delayed twice since then. The earliest it could be heard in the Senate is Monday, leaving four days for the House to take it up and either pass it, vote it down or amend it.
Weatherford said he could not say whether the bill would ultimately pass.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said.
The team has already begun an advertising campaign in South Florida, highlighting the Super Bowls, national championships and international soccer that the renovated stadium would be able to host.
Dee led reporters and camera crew through a tour of the stadium Friday to show where the renovation dollars would go. And in pointing out the aging state of the stadium, he made the point that fans shouldn’t count on Sun Life being acceptable to a future Dolphins owner once Ross’ tenure ends.
“Somebody is going to walk in here and say, ‘This place can’t be preserved,’ ’’ Dee said. “It is better dead than alive.”
In general, the renovation would eliminate the facilities put in for the Marlins in the 1990s, including two dugouts still off the sidelines and retractable bleachers once used to create the outfield.
The tour also highlighted how the renovation would bring much-needed improvements to the Dolphins’ home field. That includes new wider seats in all levels, swapping out the facility’s nearly 10-year-old video screens and bringing in a modern lighting system to replace the original 1987 equipment Joe Robbie put in when the stadium opened. Sliding glass doors in suites overlooking the field would be replaced with pivoting glass to eliminate visibility complaints from VIP customers.
Dee outlined how the seating mix would change, too: about 9,000 seats from the upper bleachers will be removed to make way for new scoreboards, while nine rows of choice seats will be added off the sidelines. He said the overall mix of “regular” to premium seats wouldn’t change, and that high-priced club seats would decline after the renovation.
In all, Sun Life’s current capacity of 75,500 would shrink to 65,300 — about a 13 percent decline. Dee said additional seating could be added for major events, including the Super Bowl.
Dee said the renovation would “help” profitability but that a winning team is what’s needed to boost finances. “You may have noticed, much to our chagrin, there have been a fair amount of vacant seats,’’ he said.