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Dolphins, Orlando stadium dreams going down on Legislature's final day

By Aaron Deslatte

Tallahassee Bureau Chief

11:29 AM EDT, May 3, 2013

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TALLAHASSEE -- Backers of a sweeping sports stadium package were working furiously Friday to convince the Florida House to pass tax-breaks for the Miami Dolphins, Orlando soccer boosters, Daytona International Speedway and others.

Central Florida Sens. Andy Gardiner and David Simmons, along with Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami, were lobbying House Speaker Will Weatherford to bring the stadium package to the floor.

But Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said the stadiums bill, which would create a competitive process for sports teams to compete for $13 million annually in sales-tax rebates, was a long shot because the package still had local Miami-Dade local tax issues that were objectionable. That means the bill may have to be amended and bounced back to the Senate, which could doom its chances.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and a contingent of city lobbyists and staffers were walking the Capitol halls trying to convince House lawmakers to accept the package, which would allow the city to move forward with a $110 million stadium construction project it hopes to use to land a Major League Soccer franchise.

MLS would like to award a franchise in December, which puts Orlando under a tight schedule for securing financial backing. "We're the only one with a deadline," Dyer said.

The Dolphins want a $3 million annual sales tax rebate along with the power to use local taxes to rehab Sun Life Stadium in order to secure another Super Bowl. But the Dolphins language has given House members the most heartburn

"I would say that has an uphill battle," Weatherford said Thursday.

On Friday, Gardiner -- who developed the review process for stadiums - agreed. "Working on it," he said after meeting with Weatherford.

By Friday afternoon, the Senate had modified its plan to remove the Dolphins local tourism tax, but keeping the $13 million pot for sports teams to compete over. The chamber amended that plan into a broader transportation bill, HB 7127, and sent it to the House.

Lawmakers were still preparing to pass a $74.5 billion spending plan that funds teacher raises, universities and Everglades cleanup alongside hometown pork.

But they passed an elections reform package (HB 7013) that expands early voting hours and locations, and undoes some of the restrictions the Republican-controlled Legislature put in place just two years earlier -- including, shrinking early voting and new barriers for mobile residents to cast regular ballots.

"Reform is never final," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who sponsored the 2011 reforms that have been partially unwound in the bill. "We need to remember that in the last election 62 supervisors had no problem implementing the law, but five had major problems."

While Florida elections officials have maintained Florida wasn't late in calling a presidential winner -- the vote was just extraordinarily close, with Obama winning by 74,309 votes, or a final margin of less than 1 percent -- some urban counties like Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange saw lines that stretched for hours.

"Some of us said bad things were going to happen, and we were right," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

"It takes men and women of maturity to understand when something is done in error and to come back and correct it."

Miami-Dade, in particular, has been blasted for not re-aligning its voting precincts with updated population data, resulting in some polling sites that were slammed and others largely empty. other counties, like Palm Beach, complained that elections vendors botched up ballots and software.

The bill lets the State Department fine vendors $25,000 for voting-machine problems that don't get fixed.

In an eleventh-hour deal, the House stripped out language pushed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, which would have allowed the Secretary of State to declare county supervisors non-compliant if they make too many mistakes in elections.

"These supervisors are elected constitutional officers just like we are, and they are ultimately accountable to their community like we are," explained House elections chairman Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton.

Miami-Dade, where the supervisor is appointed not elected, is ultimately accountable to the County Commission, he said.

Senate elections chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, fought removing that language until the session's final day.

"You would have thought the world was ending," he said the furor among election supervisors over the language.

House Democrats, while mostly complimentary of the budget work product, still used the final day to argue that Republicans were making a mistake by not expanding Medicaid coverage through the federal health-care reform.

"No  budget's perfect, but we do have an opportunity to be great and we're settling for good," said House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation.

In the Senate, lawmakers began the process of reviewing their budget and approving what’s called “conforming bills” that lay out policies that are funded in the $74.5 billion budget.

Senate Budget Chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, explained the contents of the budget with the assistance of his budget chairs, but the Senate will not take a vote until later in the day.

Lawmakers were able to increase funding in many areas such as education and the environment thanks to a budget surplus.  Negron noted they still kept $2.8 billion in reserves though.

“Even though our revenues improved, we did not go on a spending spree,” he said.

The Senate also began approving what’s called “conforming bills,” or legislation that lays out policies that are funded in the budgets.

Among the bills approved so far are a new funding formula for hospital and an economic package that includes a school sales tax holiday and a review of economic incentives the state hands out to companies.