Legislative ploy is highway robbery
April 28, 2010
With the state suffering unprecedented unemployment and budget shortfalls, legislators are looking for revenue wherever they can find it.
In years like this one, almost everything should be on the table.
But hard times don't justify picking any pocket. Lawmakers should find a way to stop the surprise raid on the Hillsborough Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.
Certainly Senate President Jeff Atwater, who wants to be the state's chief financial officer, cannot expect the trust of Hillsborough voters if he sanctions this money grab.
If this scheme does make it through the Legislature, Gov. Charlie Crist should veto it.
The proposal that surfaced this week would delay adding lanes to the tollway. The increased capacity will be needed to serve the I-4 connector, another critical project already under construction.
Budget chiefs Sen. JD Alexander of Lake Wales and Rep. David Rivera of Miami, without consulting the Hillsborough delegation, decided to call in $69 million, part of about $118 million that has been loaned to the authority for operations and maintenance.
The money is being repaid through toll collections on an agreed-upon schedule.
Under the heavy-handed proposal, the local authority has until July 15 to either pay up the long-term loan or be abolished.
It is an outrageous abuse of power.
But Alexander doesn't hesitate to throw his political weight around without regard for process whenever he wants something.
Earlier this session he demanded a University of South Florida pharmacy school be moved to USF's Lakeland campus, though it had been planned all along for Tampa.
Rep. Richard Glorioso of Plant City, head of the house transportation budget committee, tells us he was shocked by the expressway funds ploy and has been fighting nonstop to get it removed from the budget bill.
Beyond being terrible politics, it is unfair to Hillsborough County and bad public policy.
The funds were going to be used to widen the expressway during the necessary reconstruction of the deck of the old, elevated sections of the expressway in downtown Tampa.
The project would create much-needed jobs. The wider expressway would speed hurricane evacuations from Pinellas and Hillsborough. And it would result in even more tolls collected from Tampa-area drivers, who also, of course, pay their share of gasoline taxes.
To suddenly call in most of the loan from Hillsborough and not call in similar loans from other expressway authorities has the odor of personal politics.
Alexander has unfairly blamed Glorioso for engineering a raid on the transportation trust fund to help pay for other legislative priorities.
Glorioso points out that the use of transportation money for priorities in medical care and education was not his idea, but was demanded by House leadership.
And he also wonders why Hillsborough was targeted for financial attack. The Orlando expressway authority owes the state $218 million.
It is probably no coincidence that the money the state wants to grab is equal to the amount the Hillsborough authority has collected from the settlement of a claim against engineering consultant URS Corp., blamed for the partial collapse of an elevated portion of the expressway while it was under construction six years ago.
At the time, the state initially loaned the expressway the money to repair the damage, but that loan has already been repaid, except for the interest on the loan, Glorioso said.
Tolls were increased and the expressway authority trimmed expenses.
To penalize it now would be a counterproductive precedent.
Lawmakers should abandon this scheme that would punish Hillsborough's economy to satisfy Tallahassee grievances.
©2010 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.
Back to Tampa Tribune Page. . .
Back to Home Page. . .