Battle over public $$ for Fla. stadiums heats up

Marlin arena
Miami's $670 million Marlin arena, a publicly-funded baseball stadium that has taxpayers on the hook for everything from the parking lot to property taxes.

When people in Florida argue over sports, it's usually about which college has the best football team. But now, Florida lawmakers are taking on the state's pro franchises.

It's all about money and an obscure law intended to help the homeless.

Fla. teams may be fined for not housing homeless in stadiums

In the Sunshine State, professional sports are big business, pulling in billions of dollars each year from ticket sales and taxpayers, whose money is used to finance projects, such as the $670 million stadium for the Florida Marlins baseball team in downtown Miami. It's publicly-funded and has taxpayers on the hook for everything from the parking lot to property taxes.

But according to a little-known Florida statute, any professional sports facility constructed with financial assistance from the state shall be designated as a shelter for the homeless when games aren't being played.

In its 23-year-history, the law has never been enforced, and that angers Florida Sen. Mike Bennett, who has sponsored a bill demanding that teams return the money if they can't prove they've complied with the law.

"We should not be taking taxpayer dollars to support professional sports teams," he said. "The rule was you took the money, you were supposed to use it for a program for homeless people and you didn't do it, and therefore we want our money back."

Across the state, professional sports teams are estimated to have received over $270 million taxpayer dollars, but lawmakers like Bennett say teams have done nothing in return. And in the wake of rising ticket and parking prices, something needs to change, he says.

"Here we are cutting money for Medicaid, we're cutting money for education, we're cutting money for homeless programs, maybe we should ask for that money back since they didn't do it, they didn't comply, they chose to ignore the law," Bennett observed.

In a statement, a Miami Heat spokesperson said that the American Airlines Arena, which holds basketball events, has never operated as a homeless shelter "due to the intensity of arena activity and physical layout and the fact that the arena is in an flood and evacuation zone."

Critics say the bill has little chance of passing, but the showdown over taxpayer dollars could have an effect on how new stadiums are built.