By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
Gas station owners wanted the state to pay for the generators. Gov. Bush vetoed the bill.
TALLAHASSEE - Gas station owners in Florida persuaded the Legislature last May to spend $3-million to buy generators to keep their pumps running after hurricanes such as Wilma.
But Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the money, saying it would have amounted to a taxpayer subsidy to a private industry and that there was no system to fairly distribute the coveted generators.
"The state should not be in the business of subsidizing petroleum companies," said Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj. "It's a bottom-up approach. It's a partnership. That's why the governor vetoed the $3-million."
The industry argues that the generators would have served a legitimate public need, and would have come in handy this week. South Florida motorists are spending hours stranded in lines at the few stations with power, while stations without generators sit silent.
Lobbyist Jim Smith of the Florida Petroleum Marketers Association claimed credit for the proposal. Smith said the money would have been a fraction of the total revenue the state collects annually from a tax oil companies pay on oil imported to Florida.
"It dawned on me that heavens, (the state) can't spend the money," Smith said. "I thought it made sense to create some kind of emergency network."
As Smith sees it, as long as Florida continues to dole out millions of dollars every year in tax breaks to attract out-of-state companies, it makes sense to spend what amounted to 10 cents for every citizen in the state.
"I'm more right-wing than Attila the Hun," Smith said. "I'm not one that looks for government handouts."
Smith represents mom-and-pop service stations not owned by oil companies, including most Citgo and Rally outlets. He said he persuaded Sen. Charlie Clary, R-Destin, and Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to tuck $3-million in the budget "for the purchase of generators for emergency fuel supply," as the line item specified.
Colleen Castille, Bush's secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, said the issue was added to the budget at the last minute with no public discussion - a strategy that Bush has long criticized.
She said nursing homes wanted state-subsidized generators, too, and that was a much higher case of public safety than generators for gas stations.
A second issue was how to allocate the stations, Castille said.
"It's a competitive issue. If we get three generators, who are we supposed to give those generators to?" Castille said. "We didn't have any way to do it fairly."
Smith disputed that, saying he had had discussions with DEP about a plan to hire a third-party contractor to determine which stations on heavily traveled hurricane evacuation routes would get the generators.
Castille said nursing homes have since bought their own backup power sources, but most gas stations still have not.
Smith said that's because they cost so much money - as much as $70,000 each.
"To sit there and say that some guy in Crestview can afford a $70,000 investment is ridiculous," Smith said.
Negron still defends his support for the plan, though he said Bush's arguments were "well-founded."
The lawmaker spent the day trying to find ways to get more gas stations in his county open to serve a growing market of gas-hungry motorists.
"There is enough fuel," Negron said. "We just don't have enough gas stations with power. We need to have more gas stations with generators."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or 850 224-7263.