THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Fundraisers Don’t Deter Atwater’s Gas-Tax Grab

Nov 25, 2009


By John Kennedy

Florida road-builders recently sought to cement their support for state road projects with cash: pouring $10,000 into a political committee headed by Senate President Jeff Atwater.

But as lawmakers Tuesday continued to seek financing for South Florida’s Tri-Rail, Atwater appears poised to steer gas-tax dollars away from the state’s road-building fund toward the deficit-ridden rail-line.

“The political reality is they want to take some of that money, and it’s going to be very difficult to argue against it,” said Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, a road- and bridge-building industry group with 330 members.

Burleson’s group hosted a Fort Lauderdale fund-raiser for Atwater on Oct. 27, bringing in $25,000 for the Senate president’s political committee, Preserve the American Dream, according to records, and thousands more for his campaign for chief financial officer.

Records show Burleson’s group contributed $10,000 to the “dream” committee. But the donations haven’t removed the target from the state’s transportation trust fund, whose $135 million extra in unanticipated gas-tax dollars is being positioned by Atwater as a possible funding source for the South Florida rail line.

“We have to find a way to fund Tri-Rail in a reasonable manner,” said Jaryn Emhoff, an Atwater spokeswoman. “I think it’s also clear that these transportation projects are long-term and interconnected and could have a real effect on helping road-building.”

Tri-Rail needs as much as $50 million-a-year in operating cash to continue. And firming-up a proposal to stabilize Tri-Rail is considered the linchpin toward getting a special session off the ground in coming weeks that would also include Central Florida’s SunRail commuter train and the first leg of a high-speed rail connecting Tampa with Orlando.

The session, still envisioned by Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders for the Dec. 7 committee week, would be aimed at getting Florida in line with two dozen other states vying for $8 billion in federal stimulus money available for major transportation projects.

The higher gas tax revenues are being eyed as support for a new $2 surcharge on rental cars to fund Tri-Rail disappears. The surcharge had been floated last spring, when Tri-Rail funding collapsed amid controversy over SunRail, the $1.2 billion Orlando-area commuter train that was defeated by lawmakers for the second consecutive legislative session.
While Crist recently said he’d support the surcharge to fund Tri-Rail operations, provided the increase was approved through local referendums, the idea is losing traction.

“I would not support a tax hike at this time,” House Transportation and Economic Development Chairman Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, told the News Service of Florida framing the surcharge the way like many House leaders who have dismissed the increase.

In a lousy economy, with lawmakers already wary of looking soft on tax hikes, others said it was unlikely many voters would support the levy.

“I don’t think many Floridians are going to say they want an extra surcharge,” said Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven.

But the idea of steering extra gas-tax dollars toward Tri-Rail also faces hurdles.

“These dollars don’t just come from the three counties where Tri-Rail runs, they come from all 67 counties,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. “We also have to fund Tri-Rail on a recurring basis. And these gas-tax dollars can go up and down. We don’t know about their long-term effect.”

Burleson, of the transportation builders, said he’s gotten assurances that losing the extra gas-tax dollars will not hurt road and bridge projects already blueprinted in the state’s five-year work program.

He also said that given the state’s $2.6 billion budget shortfall next year, it’s unlikely any excess gas-tax revenue would flow back into transportation but, instead, would be earmarked elsewhere.

“Legislators are just trying to figure out the best way to balance the budget,” Burleson said. “Any extra money is going to be steered somewhere else.”