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Higher tolls proposed to help patch state budget gap

Motorists would see tolls rise on the Skyway and several local expressways under a proposal approved by a Senate committee.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- In their pursuit of new money to avoid deep budget cuts, state senators Thursday turned their sights on Tampa Bay's most notable landmark, the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

Skyway tolls would rise from $1 to $1.50 in July -- a year earlier than scheduled -- to help pay for port security, road right of way and high-speed rail stations. Tolls also would rise on the Veterans Expressway in Tampa, the Suncoast Parkway and the Florida Turnpike, from 6 cents to 7.5 cents a mile.

It would be the first increase in Skyway tolls since 1982, when the toll rose from 50 cents to $1 to help pay for a new bridge.

The proposed toll increases are part of a package of proposals moving through the Senate that includes a statewide fee on home purchases to pay for classroom construction and elimination of sales tax exemptions for ostrich feed and luxury suites at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

All the proposals face stiff opposition in the House.

The toll increases (SB 406), which passed the Senate Appropriations Committee, are intended to blunt the impact of a $200-million raid on the transportation budget by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature that senators say will worsen gridlock by delaying road projects.

"We can't go backward," said Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for transportation. "Our lifeblood is tourism and getting them wherever they're going. We've got to have cash."

Tolls also would rise on South Florida's Alligator Alley from $1.50 to $2, and on the Beeline East Expressway in Orlando from 25 cents to 50 cents.

The new tolls had been scheduled to take effect in July 2004, but the Senate wants to move them up a year. The higher rates would not apply to customers who use the SunPass or E-Pass systems because the state wants to encourage driver participation to reduce toll-road expenses.

"We're trying to get people to switch to our electronic toll collection system and get a transponder, so they can zip right through," said state Transportation Department spokesman Dick Kane. The device costs $25.

The five-member Senate Finance & Taxation Committee passed a separate bill to levy a statewide fee on buyers of existing homes to help pay for school construction. Currently, 17 counties, including Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco, levy impact fees, but they apply only to new houses.

The statewide fee would replace local fees, but no county would get less money.

Bill sponsor Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, has tried for years to find a growing statewide source of money for school construction. The issue has gained some urgency after passage of the class size amendment in November.

She said about 70 percent of students live in existing homes whose owners pay no impact fees, and it is more equitable to spread the cost among all home buyers.

The Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Home Builders Association favor the bill (SB 1022), but the state association of Realtors opposes it. Lobbyist Gene Adams called any statewide impact fee a tax and said it would prevent some first-time buyers from purchasing a house.

Adams said charging impact fees on older homes is unfair because the original owner paid the fee when the house was built. Impact fees are intended to help cover the cost of growth.

The fee has not yet been set. That would come later in the session if the bill survives. A fee of 50 cents on each $100 of a home's value would add $720 to the cost of a $144,000 home. That would produce $675-million to be used as collateral for a construction borrowing program.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, is dead set against levying a new fee on home purchases. He said it's wrong for lawmakers to do anything that would make it harder for people to buy homes.

The Senate tax committee also passed bills ending sales tax exemptions on ostrich feed and on skyboxes at the Citrus Bowl, a football stadium in Orlando. House leaders say they do not want to repeal any sales tax breaks this year.

Neither exemption would yield much money. Ending the stadium tax break would generate an estimated $21,000 a year. But Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, said that wasn't the point.

"I think it sends a message that we need to send," Geller said. "We have a tax policy where something gets in (the tax code) and it stays in forever. We don't have the money this year to meet our basic needs. It's a start."

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