TALLAHASSEE — Lou Hockel was looking forward to getting a break on his parking.
As a disabled Vietnam veteran, the Sarasota County resident was happy to hear about a bill Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in June that would allow people with a state-issued disabled veterans license plate to get free parking at any parking lot run by a county, city or "any agency thereof."
But just to be sure he wouldn't have any hassle when he hit the cashiers booth late at night at Tampa International Airport, Hockel called ahead. He was shocked and upset by the feedback.
"They told me, 'We don't have to honor that,' " said Hockel, a 68-year-old retired Marine who a couple of times a year flies out of Tampa International to visit his grandchildren in Washington state.
Airport authority attorney David Scott Knight told Hockel in an email that while the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority does have the word "county" in its name and is a public agency, the law does not apply to them because they are a special independent district and an airport, thus they are exempt from the law.
"We are not a state agency, county, municipality or any agency thereof and thus we are not subject to the language you cited from Florida Statute 320.084," Knight wrote in an email obtained by the Times/Herald.
Knight said airports have a specified exemption in the current law that allows them to charge drivers with disabled veterans plates for parking unless they have a car that has specialized equipment, such as ramps, lifts or hand or foot controls, which Hockel's does not.
Hockel was outraged. He said Tampa International is being nitpicky to avoid giving a few veterans the free parking that they should be able to get under the law.
"They are not following the spirit of the law," Hockel said.
State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, doesn't think so either. She said was stunned that some airports are looking for ways to avoid giving free parking. She said while the law has an exemption for airports, many are still providing the free parking to disabled veterans as a goodwill gesture.
"We're going to fix that," Detert said.
Detert has had support quickly moving a bill through the Legislature to make clear that "each publicly owned or publicly operated airport must grant free parking to a vehicle displaying a license plate for disabled veterans." The bill has already cleared two committees in the Florida House — including unanimously in the House Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee last Tuesday — and sailed through a Senate committee two weeks earlier.
"We should be able to give them the well-earned privilege of some free parking for what they have sacrificed for us," Detert said.
Janet Zink, a spokeswoman for Tampa International, initially said the airport is simply following the current law like many other airports. But Zink said Monday that the airport is going to change its policy and start offering free parking to disabled veterans anyway. She added that the airport is in full support of Detert's new measure, Senate Bill 222.
Miami International Airport spokesman Greg Chin said his airport has a similar view. He said they too provide free parking only for cars with specialized equipment but likewise support the Detert bill and will provide free parking to people with the disabled veterans plates if the legislation goes through during the 2016 legislative session, which begins in January.
Under the current law, drivers with the license plate are entitled to free parking at any metered space or in any county or municipal lot, unless that lot is being used for, among other things, an event at a convention center, cruise-port terminal or a sports stadium.
Hockel said, ultimately, he had to pay a few extra bucks the last time he went through the airport, but that isn't the point. More than anything, he said he just wants disabled veterans to know they are entitled to free parking privileges for what they have given to their country.
Contact Jeremy Wallace at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.