Subsidies to sports teams are under attack in the state Capitol. Begun as an effort to lure the Chicago White Sox to St. Petersburg in 1988, more than $400 million have gone to teams since then, but the former lawmaker who sponsored the subsidies says they have brought and kept teams here.
In 1988, St. Petersburg was going broke finishing a baseball stadium for a team it didn’t have. The White Sox were using the city as leverage for a new stadium at home. Then State Representative Pete Dunbar came up with the idea of offering a tax incentive to lure a team, but only if the team came and started collecting sales taxes.
“It didn’t cost you anything if they didn’t come. So, it was a 'Field of Dreams,” Dunbar said, invoking the theme of “if you build it, they will come."
The White Sox ultimately declined, but other teams did come and put Florida on the map for professional sports. Now, the subsidies are under attack by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
“First of all, should we even be in that business,” he said. “Secondly, do they work?”
The strong anti-subsidy stance is putting the House at odds with the Senate, where Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala says the cash has brought and kept teams.
“All that gets spent for the stadiums themselves is the incremental increase in the taxes that are collected at the facility from before the construction took place,” Latvala said.
Ten years ago, the program was broadened to include spring training facilities and is credited with keeping teams from going to Arizona.
Dunbar says he supports a review of the cash outlays, but he believes they have given Florida major league status.
”We’ve got the Lombardi trophy here. The Stanley Cup has been won here,” he said. Add an NBA championship and World Series title to the list, as well.
The fight over these subsidies and others is shaping up to be one of the major battles of the coming legislative session.