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Palm Beach County's effort to build a two-team baseball stadium got a boost Friday when Florida lawmakers approved a bill that would sweeten financing options for building spring training stadiums that the Legislature just created in 2013.
"We've been working on this for such a long time," county Commissioner Shelley Vana said. "This is another step in the right direction."
The county has Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter for the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, but county officials have been in discussions with the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals about building a spring training facility for both somewhere in the county. Boca Raton, West Palm Beach and John Prince Park west of Lake Worth are among the locations most recently discussed.
The teams have told the county that such a facility would cost from $100 million to $140 million.
A year ago, in an effort to revive Florida's reputation as a spring training destination, lawmakers passed a financing package that made up to $50 million available to any county that agreed to match the funds for a two-team spring training facility. The law provided $20 million in matching funds for a single-team facility.
But Palm Beach County officials said the financing structure imposed by the 2013 bill made it impossible to build a stadium. In particular, state money for a two-team stadium would be spread over 37 1/2 years, and each yearly installment would be subject to approval by the Legislature as part of the annual appropriations process.
The 37 1/2 years is longer than the typical duration of a public bond issue and, because the money must be appropriated each year, it isn't considered a guaranteed revenue source for the purposes of a bond issue, county officials said.
After lobbying by Palm Beach County officials, the Senate agreed to a measure to change the payout period for a two-team stadium to 25 years, and on Thursday the Senate included it in the House's much broader stadium bill (HB 7095). On Friday, the House voted 89-27 to pass the bill including the Senate changes.
"We've worked hard on this legislation for a long time," said the county's legislative affairs director, Todd Bonlarron. "I really think the bill is a great opportunity to grow spring training in Florida."
The measure now goes to Gov. Rick Scott. In an email, Scott spokesman John Tupps said that the governor "looks forward to signing this legislation."
The overall bill also could speed $2 million a year to Daytona International Speedway and to soccer teams in Miami and Orlando, while shutting out Major League Baseball until its draft requirements for players defecting from Cuba are revamped.
And it would require the state Department of Economic Opportunity to evaluate economic viability and rank funding proposals for sports projects before lawmakers are asked to approve sales-tax dollars for multimillion-dollar construction projects and improvements. This provision, however, would not apply to spring training stadium funding, which comes from another pool of money. Lawmakers fought hard over these other issues in the bill throughout the session.
Some lawmakers decried efforts to give money to billion-dollar sports leagues as "corporate welfare." Proponents described it as a "sports facilities incentive program." The bill would expand the professional sports that are now eligible for sales-tax dollars for stadium work from baseball, football, basketball and hockey teams to also include Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League,NASCAR, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, hosts of the Breeders' Cup horse races and minor-league baseball facilities. It would allow these group's projects that cost more than $200 million to apply for up to $3 million a year in funding for 30 years. Projects worth between $100 million and $200 million could apply for up to $2 million a year, and those between $30 million and $100 million would be eligible for up to $1 million a year.
Another controversial part of the bill would require Major League Baseball to allow Cuban players to bargain with teams as free agents as players from other countries do, rather than competing in the amateur draft. Unlike players from other countries, Cuban prospects are required to establish residency in another country in order to negotiate with major league clubs as free agents.
That portion of the bill came in response to the plight of Cuban-born slugger Yasiel Puig, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who was smuggled out of Cuba to Mexico to avoid the draft, only to be held hostage by the smugglers.
Major League Baseball issued a statement Friday saying it was "extremely concerned about the role of human traffickers in assisting Cuban baseball players to leave the country."
MLB said it would meet with the Players Association to determine whether changes can be made to its signing rules "to reduce or eliminate the reliance of Cuban players on criminal organizations when leaving Cuba."
It also plans 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."
The News Service of Florida and The Associated Press contributed to this story. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @StapletonPBPost
what the bill would do
Make $20 million in state tax dollars available over 20 years for building of one-team stadium.
Make $50 million available over 25 years for building of two-team stadium.
Allow an existing stadium to use tax dollars to expand to a two-team stadium.