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Marlins Stadium Team Playing Harder

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Marlins' stadium team playing harder


A bill to help the Marlins build a new stadium remained bottled up in the state Senate, though a powerful group of Miamians made another run at helping the team in Tallahassee.



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TALLAHASSEE - This was supposed to be the year.


The Florida Marlins, three times rebuffed in attempts to win a state sales-tax subsidy for a new ballpark, got their act together, touting an agreement with the county and the city. The team even took a new tack when legislators arrived in Tallahassee: team representatives stayed home, their effort fronted by a tag team of local mayors.


But despite it all, the team finds itself in familiar territory all over again: on life support in the Florida Senate with just three days left in the legislative session.


A delegation of Miami bigwigs launched a last-minute appeal Tuesday, pleading with Senate President Tom Lee to free up $60 million in public financing for a new ballpark for the team.


The full-court press by the contingent of powerful Dade developers -- including Gov. Jeb Bush's one-time partner, Armando Codina -- came as the Marlins proposal for a 30-year, $60 million sales-tax subsidy languishes in a Senate that is increasingly reluctant about giving what it sees as a second sales tax rebate to a team of millionaire players employed by wealthy owners.


But the Miami group, which flew to Tallahassee on developer Sergio Pino's private plane at the request of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, emerged upbeat from a meeting with the Senate president, who has long been leery of the team's proposal.


"The last time we were here they told us we needed to get the mayors and the civic and business community with us," Codina said. "We've done that. Now we'd like to see a vote."


Despite the optimism, the money for a retractable-dome stadium faces serious obstacles in the Senate, where Lee has questioned tax breaks for sports teams and senators quote polls that show most voters opposed to public financing of pro teams.


A Senate study found that there's virtually no economic benefit to public financing of professional stadiums and Lee as recently as Monday said he has a "real problem" with granting the team a second state subsidy: former team owner Wayne Huizenga won a rebate in the mid-1990s to retrofit the current stadium.


The measure was moribund until a week ago, when House members revived it and the legislation cleared that chamber, raising hopes among supporters.


But to get the bill out of that chamber and bring it back to life, the House rolled it into a sweeping proposal that includes millions for four spring training facilities -- including the Baltimore Orioles' facility in Fort Lauderdale -- and $30 million to lure the NASCAR Hall of Fame to Daytona Beach. The legislation's price makes it a tricky issue in the Senate, which has twice before delivered the death knell to Marlins money.


"The Marlins might have been able to make it alone; now you've got a hell of a lot more reasons to vote against it," said former Senate president Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican.




Because the Senate version of the Marlins bill has not been heard by the chamber's budget committee, supporters would have to convince senators to waive their rules -- which requires agreement of two-thirds of the Senate -- just to get it on the floor.


Lee said he doesn't think there are more than 10 votes for the measure and doesn't want to take time debating a doomed proposal. An informal survey of senators conducted by Sen. Rudy Garcia found 15 senators in favor, 16 against. Of the 40 senators, nine hadn't yet been reached.


But Mayor Diaz said he asked Lee to put the measure up for a vote, and "we weren't told 'no.' "


"I think there's still hope," said Diaz, who has been lobbying Lee for more than a week, arguing that a baseball stadium next to the Orange Bowl in Little Havana would spur economic development in a poor neighborhood "If he gets it up there, we'll work hard to get the votes."


Lee said late Tuesday he's not "unwilling" to allow the legislation onto the floor, but doesn't believe the team has the votes.


Codina, a major campaign donor to the Bush family and a friend of the governor, said he hadn't lobbied Bush on the Marlins. And Bush, who single-handedly doomed a Marlins proposal in 2000, on Tuesday backed off earlier suggestions that the stadium proposal should be heard in the Senate.


"This is not the time to be putting pressure on anybody; this is a time to let the process work," Bush told reporters. He later joked, "They're tied for first in the NL East. Great pitching staff. That's my position on the Marlins."


The Marlins proposal has been a tough sell in the Senate in part because senators from Miami-Dade haven't always unanimously supported the proposal, and unanimity is a critical factor in earning support from the full chamber.


Lee has said support now among the Miami-Dade delegation is "sort of unraveling" and the issue has become a "hot potato blame game" among the delegation for its seeming demise.


And it's been Senate Majority Leader Alex Villalobos taking the most heat, accused of not aggressively pushing the measure, even though it's Garcia's bill and Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who previously opposed the measure, voted against it in its last Senate committee, questioning its economic value.


Villalobos brushed off complaints that he's not working the legislation, telling reporters he's "been pestering" Lee daily.


The Miami Republican, in line to become Senate president in 2008, shrugged off speculation among Republicans that he's attracting blame because of his opposition to Gov. Jeb Bush's try to repeal the voter-approved class-size amendment.


"I'm not going to be intimidated out of my position on class size," Villalobos said. "If they want to blame me for the four hurricanes last year, that's all right, too. I guess the tsunami was too far away to blame me, right?"




Some say that Villalobos could step up his efforts to convince Lee to hear the measure and speculate that he's worried about jeopardizing his future Senate presidency.


"As a mayor, I know how it feels, it's lonely at the top," said Diaz, who praised Villalobos' efforts. "The expectation is that he should be twisting everybody's arms. He's the majority leader, Dade wants the project."


Miami Republican Rep. Marco Rubio, who, like Villalobos is in line to lead his chamber, defended Villalobos, noting that he had helped the bill get out of a Senate committee last week, pledging to work with one potential critic of the deal.


"This is still a democracy, people still have votes," Rubio said. "No matter how powerful you are, you really can't force people to vote for things that violate their conscience. To many people, particularly people in the Florida Senate, this is an issue of principle."



I think the quote attributed to Rep. Rubio says it all about this effort. Well, three days for a breakthrough. Odds are very long.

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