Carl Hiaasen

Stadium plan a 'bifurcated rip-off'

Last year at this time, on the eve of Super Bowl XLIV at the Dolphins’ stadium, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ominously warned that South Florida might not be selected to host any more of the big games unless the venue got a high-priced facelift.

Predictably, his words triggered clammy hand-wringing among civic boosters, and a cry from the Dolphins ownership for community action (meaning public money). From residents came a sneer of well-deserved skepticism.

The team said it would need about $225 million to improve the stadium by installing a partial roof and adding 3,000 premium seats. The proposed source of the funding would be hotel bed taxes, a traditional slush fund for unpopular boondoggles that enrich sports tycoons and other private industries.

The Dolphins’ latest ploy was revealed last week by CEO Mike Dee. He said the team will seek a new state law that could increase bed taxes in both Miami-Dade and Broward, and would allow Broward officials to send its revenues across the county line to help renovate the football stadium.

This is what you call a bifurcated rip-off.

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Taxing the tourists who stay in our hotels has always been politically appealing because tourists don’t get to vote. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, the bed-tax revenues in Miami-Dade are an object of fierce and lustful lobbying, and the Florida Marlins struck gold first.

Mathematically challenged county commissioners pledged 40 years’ worth of future hotel taxes to secure bonds for constructing the new Marlins baseball stadium, which is destined to be the costliest mausoleum ever built, and the only one with Jumbotrons.

Facing a drought of public funds, the Dolphins last spring sought to change state law so Miami-Dade could boost its bed tax on tourists from 6 to 7 percent. The team had to go all the way to Bradenton to dredge up a legislator willing to sponsor the bill, which never got filed because of opposition from tourist-industry leaders.

Now the Dolphins are trying a more ambitious scheme, and one reason is competition. Some tourism leaders and Miami Beach officials want to use Miami-Dade bed taxes to refurbish the aging Miami Beach Convention Center, a project that will cost at least $500 million.

That would substantially shrink the Dolphins’ cut of the local pie, so the team’s remedy is to hit up Broward visitors for the rest of the stadium funding.

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Dee has won the support of some major hotels, and for the first time he said that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross will actually kick in some dough toward the renovation.

That’s a real heartwarming gesture — sort of like offering to repaint your own house if the neighbors first agree to build you a new five-bedroom wing.

For obvious reasons, the Dolphins’ lobbyists would rather go straight to the Legislature than let a bed-tax grab appear on a public ballot, where it would be drop-kicked into oblivion. South Floridians are fed up with tax dollars being diverted as a welfare stream for wealthy owners of sports franchises.

The roster of multimillion-dollar giveaways is long and shameful — the Panthers hockey arena, the Homestead speedway, the Grand Prix at Bicentennial Park, and two (count ’em) basketball arenas for the Miami Heat. The football stadium itself already enjoys hefty tax exemptions secured by former owner Wayne Huizenga.

Every time, the argument for special treatment is the same: Sinking public funds into private sports facilities is good for the community.

Not one reputable research study has backed up this assertion, and scores have contradicted it. Time and again, financial analysts have concluded that public monies invested in stadiums and arenas produce zero or even negative economic benefits, except to team owners.

That didn’t deter Dee, the Dolphins CEO, from predicting that a made-over football palace would draw six Super Bowls to the area over the next 30 years, and pump $2.5 billion into the economy.

Fantastic! And, as long as we’re fantasizing, maybe Chad Henne will pass for 5,000 yards next season.

No less silly is the NFL’s heavy-handed hint that Dolphins Stadium needs a major upgrade to stay in the running for future Super Bowls. South Florida will always be on the preferred short list, because very few NFL cities can offer sunshine and beaches in February.

Ironically, the fate of the Dolphins’ bed-tax gambit will rest with a state Legislature controlled by self-proclaimed tax haters. Even lawmakers who are ardent football fans should think twice beforeendorsing such an outrageous handout, and risk being blog-whipped as hypocrites.

So far, the normally vocal Tea Party has failed to weigh in on the stadium-funding controversy. It will be interesting to see if its fabled commitment to save common folk from unfair taxes extends to Miami tourists seeking a hotel room.

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