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Politics

Lobbyist: Rick Scott Begged Will Weatherford to Pass Sun Life Stadium Funding

May 7, 2013 - 6:00pm

When Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford declined to bring the Sun Life Stadium taxpayer-funding bill up for a vote on the last day of session, he wasn't simply thwarting the will of a few lawmakers, he was ignoring a personal plea by Gov. Rick Scott himself, according to the bill's chief lobbyist.

The governor was encouraging the speaker of the House to hear the bill, Ron Book, one of the state's most influential lobbyists, tells Sunshine State News of a rare visit Scott paid to Weatherford's office on May 2, second-to-last day of session. The governor was deeply involved in encouraging that the [Sun Life Stadium] legislation be heard in the closing days of the legislative session by the Florida House.

Book's revelation underscores what appears to be a growing divide between Weatherford and Scott. Just days before the speaker tabled the stadium bill, HB 1828, Scott worked behind the scenes to kill Parent Empowerment, a measure that enjoyed Weatherford's, and the Florida House's, strong support.

We provide economic incentives to all kinds of enterprises, not just sports enterprises, continues Book, whose clientele includes the Miami Dolphins. Hosting Super Bowls, hosting national championship football games, hosting all-star games, hosting events that otherwise can't be held anywhere else but here in Florida, that bring hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to our local economy and the state economy, are good for Florida.

That certainly isn't how Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who helped lead resistance to the legislation, characterizes the matter.

The concept, that because an employer creates jobs they should be subsidized with taxpayer money, is a flawed concept, he tells SSN. Every business, from the one man selling water bottles at the corner of the street to Walt Disney and Publix, they create jobs and they employ people. [Government] should provide a fair tax structure, an educated workforce, and a safe community so that businesses, whatever they are, may be able to prosper.

Book tells SSN there are no current plans for the stadium funding bill to be revived next session, but that's little comfort to Trujillo, who warns, "They're going to be back; maybe not the Dolphins, but the concept of the taxpayer subsidizing professional sports franchises will come back in one way or another.

Lay Republican activist Norman Braman -- owner of Braman Honda car dealerships, former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and lead opponent of the stadium bill sounded more relieved than jubilant over the demise of the legislation, which hecondemnsas just so much corporate welfare.

It's over, I've got a lot of other things to be concerned with here; I'm not a sore winner, the successful billionaire who prides himself on never having received, or asked for, a taxpayer subsidy tells SSN. [The bill's defeat] is a great win for the taxpayers. I don't think the taxpayers win too many these days, but I'm very pleased by it. I think despite some reactions that I have heard in the community, the community's very pleased as well.

Scott did not come out publicly for or against HB 1828 during the 60-day session, though his advisers did draw up a list of principles the bill should comply with in order for the governor to give it his consideration. According to the Tampa Bay Times, that included Dolphins owner Stephen Ross a multibillionaire and one of the wealthiest men in America having to match some of the costs of the improvements, the Dolphins themselves funding a study on the economic impact of the improvements, and a requirement that subsidies be approved by local voter referenda.

But on Monday, Scott broke that silence.

The Dolphins did the right thing, Scott told reporters at a press conference held at Piper High School, where he was touting his education reforms. They were working hard to improve that stadium so we could have more Super Bowls down here, so it's a significant disappointment that the House did not take it up for a vote.

Weatherford issued his own statement Wednesday explaining why he did not bring the bill forward.

I understand the disappointment of supporters of the Sun Life Stadium tax bill. Like 700 of the 1,100 bills filed this session, it did not have the necessary support for passage," he said. "There were serious challenges with the legislation: the feedback from Miami-Dade was negative and there were concerns expressed by members on both sides of the aisle. It's not the fault of the Florida Legislature that Dolphins' management failed to win legislative approval to force taxpayers to upgrade Sun Life Stadium after paying for a local referendum. Some would call that putting the cart before the horse.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

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