Unlike with Marlins Park, Miami-Dade County voters will have a direct say on whether public funding is used for Sun Life Stadium improvements.

Prodded by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Miami Dolphins executives agreed to a referendum on the proposed increase in county hotel bed tax collections from 6 percent to 7 percent and the use of the new revenue for stadium upgrades. Gimenez and the Dolphins still must hash out the terms of a financing arrangement before the referendum is scheduled sometime between now and May.

It might seem like a referendum would minimize the potential impact Dolphins lobbyists could have at the county level. That’s not necessarily the case, according to longtime government affairs attorney Jorge Luis Lopez of Coral Gables.

"Where the lobbying will turn to is the language of the ballot," he said. "That’s purely a negotiated discussion. The county attorney’s office has to approve it, but how that question is drafted is definitely a lobbying exercise."

Lopez noted powerful attorney-lobbyist Ron Book, who is a part of the Dolphins lobbying contingent, has plenty of experience lobbying in advance of referendums. Book led successful pushes for voter-approved gaming expansions for pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Brian May of Tallahassee-based Floridian Partners LLC, which has four lobbyists working for the Dolphins this year, also had a key role in 2008 when Miami-Dade voters approved slot machines.

"Ronnie is experienced in this effort," Lopez said. "This is more like gaming than anything we’ve seen in terms of the referendum. Pick the right date and make sure the language is fair and transparent."

Norman Braman, the fiercest opponent of public stadium funding, believes the football team’s sudden willingness to support a referendum reeks of desperation. Braman told the Daily Business Review that the Dolphins are trying to "pull the rabbit out of the hat" after the Miami-Dade legislative delegation declined to include the stadium proposal on its list of priorities this year.

"They came up with a referendum to try to change things," Braman said. "They previously said a referendum was not acceptable to them; they didn’t have time for it. This was a gun-to-your-head routine."