tampabay.com

Bush says no to rental car tax increase

The local option measure would let counties tax tourists "without representation," he says in a veto message.n The local option measure would let counties tax tourists "without representation," he says in a veto message.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 28, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a bill Tuesday that would have allowed a new $2-a-day tax on rental car customers, calling it "taxation without representation on a large scale" for Florida tourists.

The language of Bush's veto message directly undercut the arguments of many of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, who insisted the optional tax was not truly a tax because it was subject to approval by a county's voters in a local referendum.

The $2-a-day tax would have created a new pool of money for cities and counties to match federal and state grants to provide road improvements and mass transit.

While the legislation bore the name of Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, its sponsor and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, it was largely the work of business leaders and lawmakers from Greater Orlando, where tourists keep cash registers humming but also make sizable contributions to traffic congestion.

"I think there is a need for extra dollars and a user fee seemed to be the best way to do it," said Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden. "That's why I supported it."

But what made the proposal controversial was that it had support even from Republicans who have signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge to oppose "any and all" tax increases. They include Webster and Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, the House majority leader.

Supporters said the money was needed to pay for an urgent backlog of transportation needs. They argued they were not advocating higher taxes because the tax could be imposed only if a majority of a county's voters authorized it. But that didn't sway Bush.

"These taxes will be paid disparately by tourists visiting Florida, consequently creating taxation without representation on a large scale," Bush wrote in a veto message. "Philosophically, I cannot support this."

Fred Leonhardt, a lobbyist for Orlando, called Bush's veto "very unfortunate." He said the rental car tax would have been fairer because it would have required tourists who clog Florida roads to pay a greater share of the congestion they created.

"This is a setback in addressing the transportation infrastructure needs that we have as an urban county," Leonhardt said. "The needs are still stronger than the resources to address them."

Despite business community support for the rental car tax, large segments of the tourism industry mobilized to oppose it.

They included national rental car companies, travel groups such as Tampa-based AAA Auto Club South, and county tourism agencies.

D.T. Minich, director of the Lee County Convention & Visitors Bureau in Fort Myers, told Bush in a letter that a $2-a-day surcharge, on top of an existing $2 daily surcharge now in effect, would make Florida one of the highest-taxed rental car markets in the country.

Taxes and fees already add up to a 23 percent tax on airport rental car customers in Tampa, 29 percent in Jacksonville and 27 percent in Miami, according to figures provided by tax opponents.

"Rental car companies and our visitors already pay their fair share into state and local coffers," Minich wrote. "Why should our one industry be charged with solving a transportation problem that it does not individually create?"

But Webster said the current formula for allocating money for road construction is based on population, which he said penalizes areas like Orlando where visitors add to gridlock.

Webster said Bush's veto could actually worsen traffic congestion in Florida, because a separate provision in the bill would have increased the borrowing capacity of the turnpike system by $250-million.

The bill SB 1350 passed the House 103-14 and the Senate 34-4.

Among its Republican supporters were Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, who is running for chief financial officer, and Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a candidate for attorney general.

Lee's primary opponent, Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, voted against the bill, as did Negron's opponent, Rep. Everett Rice, R-Indian Shores.

By vetoing the bill, Bush also eliminated provisions intended to improve the level of bidding competition on road projects and the naming of roads after prominent Floridians. They included a Bartow highway that would have been named after George Harris Jr., the late father of U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris of Longboat Key.

 

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.