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Dime-a-gallon gas tax cut is more symbol than savings

The GOP proposal would save most Florida drivers only about $5 for the month it would be in effect.

legislature 2000
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By WILLIAM YARDLEY and SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Sometime late this summer, when vacationers are hitting the road and voters are beginning to think about the upcoming elections, Florida motorists might find some relief from soaring gas prices -- measured in dimes.

House Republican leaders pledged Thursday to cut the state gas tax by 10 cents per gallon for one month, beginning as early as July or as late as September. That means that the signs on the corner threatening $1.57 for a gallon of regular gas might ask $1.47.

The total savings for most motorists in Florida? About $5.

The total cost to the state? About $75-million.

"It's the symbolism of what we're trying to do," Republican House Speaker John Thrasher said Thursday. "We're trying to send a message to the federal government."

Nationally, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has blamed the "Clinton-Gore" administration for failing to curb gas prices that exceed $2 per gallon in some states. Republicans in Congress considered eliminating a 4.3-cent a gallon gas tax, then backed away because the money goes to pay for transportation projects.

But individual states are going ahead with tax cuts. Florida joins New York, Illinois, Connecticut and other states looking to reduce their gas taxes and give consumers a break in an election year.

"I'm intrigued by it," Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of the Texas governor, said of the gas tax cut, stopping just short of endorsing it Thursday. "It's a huge issue of concern for the tourist industry and for Floridians in general."

Republican Senate President Toni Jennings expressed some reservations, and said a gas tax cut would not be part of the Senate budget plan she will announce today. "I'm not sure if five bucks makes a difference for a tourist coming to Florida," she said.

Some Florida Democrats found little to complain about, although some worried the lost tax revenues would rob money from the budget. Rep. Les Miller, the House Democratic leader, offered to co-sponsor the bill, presuming it did not threaten spending for education and other areas.

Senate Democratic leader Buddy Dyer said, "I just hope it's not a campaign trick."

The state would have to find $75-million in revenue to replace the money lost to the gas tax cut. Money from the state's total gas tax, 14.4 cents per gallon, goes toward building roads.

Thrasher said the House will propose about $600-million in tax cuts overall. He said the gas tax cut would not jeopardize other planned cuts including a sales tax holiday and a cut on the state intangibles tax.

Some state lawmakers worry that steep gas prices could keep tourists from making the drive to Florida this summer. One legislator, Rep. George Crady of Yulee, worried gas prices might keep summer visitors from leaving.

"When they do get here," Crady joked, "we want to make sure the gas is discounted -- so they can get back home."

Rising prices are blamed, for the most part, on a reduction in oil production by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. But representatives of U.S. wholesalers and retailers say domestic oil companies could do more to ease the pain at the pump.

Either way, said Rick McAllister of the Florida Petroleum Marketers, gas wholesalers and retailers will work with the state to make sure the dime discount makes it from the refinery to the pump.

"They want to make sure they're not creating a nightmare for us and I think that's nice," McAllister said. "As long as we have enough notice we can deal with it."

Not coincidentally, House leaders paired Thursday's gas tax cut announcement with their plans to boost education spending. This year and last, Bush and the Legislature have been criticized for using the state's budget surplus to cut taxes, instead of sending more dollars to public schools.

In response, House leaders pointed Thursday to their plans to increase public school spending by $800-million over last year, about $80-million more than Bush has recommended. The Senate, however, wants the biggest increase -- about $1.3-billion, including more money that could be used to raise teacher salaries.

Rep. Ken Pruitt, who leads the House budget committee, said the House's proposal goes far toward restoring school spending to pre-lottery levels. After the lottery started, lawmakers began using those dollars to meet basic school needs, not for the educational "extras" that voters thought the money would provide.

This year's plans show "the House's priority is still education," said Pruitt, a Republican from Port St. Lucie.

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