TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) - The House on Friday approved a process to help determine whether to use tax dollars for professional sports stadium projects but would exclude Major League Baseball from potential funding unless changes are made in how Cuban players are treated.
Major League Baseball issued a statement Friday that questioned the House action, but added it intends to address signing rules for Cubans with the players union.
A year after blocking a number of high-profile stadium funding requests, the House voted 93-16 to back the measure (HB 7095), which would require all future stadium funding applicants to go through an economic-impact ranking process by the Department of Economic Opportunity. The projects then would have to get legislative support.
"We're not giving money to anybody," Sarasota Republican Ray Pilon said. "When this process is in place, then you can call me if you're in favor or not of funding these institutions, when we go through the process."
Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, added that rather than setting up a "corporate giveaway for billionaires," the proposal will create economic-development "opportunities for air travel, we create opportunities for hotel stays, we create economic opportunities for restaurant owners."
But Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, warned the measure will only result in governments and teams lining up at the state trough.
"If we enact this into law, 2015 will be the first inaugural tax break Olympics," Rodriguez said.
The House proposal also would establish a pool of $12 million in sales-tax dollars, starting in 2015, that would be available annually for the major sports leagues, along with Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League, NASCAR, rodeos, the Breeders' Cup horse race and minor-league baseball facilities.
Currently, only Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association are eligible for sales-tax dollars for stadium work.
The measure has a number of differences from a Senate proposal (SB 1216), which seeks $13 million a year for stadium work, including $6 million that could be allocated this year potentially for Daytona International Speedway and Major League Soccer expansion-franchise stadium plans in Orlando and Miami.
Meanwhile, the House measure also includes a provision that could impact ongoing efforts to work on spring training facilities.
An amendment added Thursday would exclude Major League Baseball facilities in the state from going through the ranking process until the sport addresses a rule regarding Cuban ballplayers.
Amendment sponsors Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, said Cuban players who reach U.S. shores should be treated as free agents, as is the practice for other foreign players.
Currently, Cuban players who defect from the island nation must enter the major league draft or establish residency in another foreign country to negotiate as a free agent
The MLB requirement has had the unintended consequences of forcing Cuban players to engage with human smugglers and trafficking, Gaetz said.
"This is about vulnerable people on the island of Cuban that want a fair chance," Gaetz said.
The amendment was added to the bill in reaction to recent reports that detailed Los Angeles Dodgers Yasiel Puig's escape from Cuba involving a Mexican drug cartel, death threats and demands for 20 percent of his major league salary.
MLB responded by issuing a statement Friday that questioned the House amendment.
"While the sponsors of the bill in Florida blame MLB policies for the role of human smugglers, they do not provide any support for their premise that Cuban players must rely on traffickers to defect to countries other than the U.S. such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but would not need the assistance of traffickers to reach U.S. soil," MLB said in the statement.
"However, we will meet with the Players Association (union) to determine whether changes can be made to our international signing rules to reduce or eliminate the reliance of Cuban players on criminal organizations when leaving Cuba," the statement continued. "We also intend to speak to the U.S. State Department about actions that the U.S. government can take to reduce or eliminate the trafficking of Cuban baseball players. We hope that the legislators in Florida will do the same."
Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is sponsoring the Senate measure, said he will support the Cuban provision, which is expected to be included in an amendment by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.
However, Latvala expects the bill will require further negotiations between the chambers once it goes through the Senate.
"This bill will bounce," Latvala said. "We're not gonna do it exactly the way the House does it on the first pass."
The Senate measure is currently scheduled to be brought to the floor on Tuesday.
This report is by Jim Turner with The News Service of Florida.
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