A little known Florida law meant to turn taxpayer-funded sports arenas into homeless shelters on off-nights has been resurrected in the state Legislature, and several stadiums might be on the hook.
By TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA
According to a 23-year-old law that has been mostly ignored, professional sports facilities built with the help of government funds are required to house the homeless on nights when no official events are taking place.
Two lawmakers have dug up that old statute, and are pushing bills that would make stadium owners return millions of taxpayer dollars if they can’t prove they’ve been operating as a haven for the homeless in the years since they began receiving checks from the government. The bill passed its first committee in the Senate on Monday with a unanimous vote.
“We have spent over $300 million supporting teams that can afford to pay a guy $7, $8, $10 million a year to throw a baseball 90 feet. I think they can pay for their own stadium,” said Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, who is pushing the bills along with Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami. “I cannot believe that we’re going to cut money out of Medicaid and take it away from homeless and take it away from the poor and impoverished, and we’re continuing to support people who are billionaires.”
Bennett’s bill would force owners of sports facilities like the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg to refund millions of dollars and begin operating homeless shelters on off-nights. So far, the state has spent more than $270 million on constructing stadiums, with the former Dolphin Stadium receiving $37 million and AAA taking $27.5 million. It is unclear whether any of the stadiums, which receive monthly subsidies of about $166,000 each, is operating an active homeless shelter program.
During Monday’s hearing, some lawmakers saw the proposal as payback for publicly financed stadium deals that have gone sour, including the recently-built Miami Marlins stadium. That $642 million stadium, funded mostly by taxpayers, featured a highly-criticized contract that leaves the City of Miami on the hook for an unexpected property tax bill.
“Every opportunity to negotiate with these guys, they invoke every single minuscule jot and tittle in the contract,” said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico. “Whenever it works to their benefit they’ll hold that up to their defense. Now, here’s an opportunity for us to invoke the terms of the contract.”
The Marlins declined to comment about whether a homeless shelter has been, or would be, in operation at the facility. Miami Heat spokeswoman Lorrie-Ann Diaz said AAA has never operated as a homeless shelter, in part “due to the intensity of arena activity and physical layout and the fact that the Arena is in a flood and evacuation zone.”
Bennett also slipped in a late amendment meant to punish teams that black out games played in taxpayer funded stadiums.
The proposal, originally backed by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, would fine the team $125,000 for each game that was blacked out, and use the money to purchase sports tickets for foster children, active military members on leave and the less fortunate.
The amendment passed unanimously.
The bill faces three more stops in the Senate before heading to the floor. A companion bill in the House has not yet been taken up for a vote.
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