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Nov 29, 2003
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Vote on Marlins stadium financing again comes late in legislative session

By Sarah Talalay and Linda Kleindienst
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted April 30 2007

The Florida Marlins pulled off a remarkable ninth-inning rally to beat the Atlanta Braves one night last week.

The team and South Florida officials are hoping for a similar feat this week as the state Legislature decides the fate of the last, critical piece of financing needed for a new $490 million ballpark for the two-time World Series champions. But once again, as was the case five times before, the stadium's fate will be decided in the waning days of the session, which is scheduled to adjourn on Friday.

On Thursday, the state House overwhelmingly approved a $60 million sales tax rebate to cover a gap in the ballpark's financing plan. But the final say will come from the Senate, which has been far less supportive of the idea in a tight budget year. Also, it has far meatier issues facing votes in the session's final week, including a $70 billion-plus state budget and possibly a major property tax cut package.

"In my mind, they're dead for the session," Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said last week. "It never has been a done deal. The votes we have had have barely passed every time. There still is about half the chamber against this issue. It's an uphill battle, no matter what."

But team supporters, primarily Miami-Dade County senators, aren't conceding yet.

"There are high-level negotiations going on," said Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, a sponsor of one of the Senate bills to help the team. He and Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who also sponsored a Marlins bill, said it's difficult to predict what can happen in the final days of a legislative session, as hundreds of bills are passed and chamber leaders make a series of trade-offs to adjourn on time.

"In this process, I don't think it's over until it's over," said Diaz de la Portilla, whose district would be home to the new stadium. "I think that a lot of things happen in the last days of session that no one can possibly imagine."

It was supposed to be different this year. Unlike previous years, when stadium funding requests were disorganized or made late in the session, lobbying for the Marlins funding began early.

A Senate committee vote came in advance of the annual session. Gov. Charlie Crist, House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, all expressed early and continued support for the Marlins' funding request, along with a plan that would provide rebates to all nine of the state's professional franchises at a potential cost of $540 million. And Miami-Dade County and Miami city commissioners approved a financing plan in concept last month, although they left open a decision on the ballpark's location.

This year the funding request could be the victim of a session that is weighed down with controversial issues of high public interest, including property tax and insurance. It also hasn't helped matters that Garcia and Diaz de la Portilla are feuding over whose name should appear on the bill.

Others blamed a plan proposed by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, to provide about $32 million in one-time lump sum cash payments each to the Marlins, Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay Lightning to build or renovate their venues. Diaz de la Portilla called the cash pay plan a "poison pill" the Legislature would be hard-pressed to swallow as lawmakers face a $1 billion drop in state revenues because of the slower economy and lagging housing market.

"The only way it can happen is a sales tax rebate. It may include three teams, the Orlando Magic, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Marlins, because that way we get a geographic distribution. It doesn't hurt that the majority leader [Webster] is from Orlando, the chairman of transportation and economic development [Fasano] is from Tampa," Diaz de la Portilla said.

"I never say never," said Senate President Ken Pruitt, who benefited on the final day of last year's session when the bill to provide funding for municipalities to upgrade spring training venues was amended so Port St. Lucie, spring home of the New York Mets and Pruitt's hometown, would qualify. "You just never know."

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who says he's more optimistic than ever the funding request will prevail, blames the holdup on "politics."

"I mean politics, internal, external," Alvarez said.

"Some people don't believe it, but it's hardball politics, and there's no other way to explain it. It's what goes on in Tallahassee."

Sarah Talalay can be reached at stalalay@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4173.

From the looks of the quotes from the Miami-Dade Senators, this isn't over yet in the Senate. At least the quotes from Diaz de la Portilla are more positive. Is he jumping back on board? Hopefully it works out this year. Only a week left.

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