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Norman bill boosts taxi, limo companies and controversial agency

TALLAHASSEE — A bill proposed by newly elected state Sen. Jim Norman would benefit taxi and limousine operators, one of his major campaign backers.

Critics say Norman's bill would consolidate power for companies that currently hold limousine and taxi permits, and perpetuate the public transportation agency that Sen. Ronda Storms wants to shut down.

Norman, a Republican from Carrollwood whose district includes north Tampa and much of eastern Pasco County, received about $5,000 in campaign contributions from the taxi and limousine industry in his bid for the state Senate. More than half of that came in after the August primary, when he was fighting a legal battle to stay on the November ballot.

Norman said he didn't consider the contributions when sponsoring the bill. "I didn't even speak with anyone from the cab industry," he said.

Paperwork filed with Hillsborough County lists Louis Betz, a lobbyist for the Tampa Taxi Coalition, as the contact for Norman's bill and says the legislation was prepared by Betz.

The bill seeks to reauthorize the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, something that has to happen every 10 years. The PTC, which regulates taxis, limousines, tow trucks, ambulances and other vehicles for hire, is the only organization of its kind in the state.

Betz said he didn't know why his name was listed in the bill paperwork. He said the PTC put his name on it.

After his election, Norman sought and received chairmanship of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which in years past has warned the Public Transportation Commission not to arbitrarily expand its powers.

Norman's committee also reviews activities of the Division of Administrative Hearings, which considers appeals of decisions made by the PTC. That appeals process was added to the PTC rules earlier this year despite objections from the taxi cab industry.

In addition to extending the life of the PTC, Norman's bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-New Tampa, includes provisions requested by current permit holders. Those would require limousines to be luxury vehicles and set a cap on the number of limousine permits issued each year.

The bill also would allow permit holders to sell their permits and use them to finance business growth. It's all about free enterprise, Norman said.

"That would be capital for them to grow and move, but an individual owner could acquire a permit and operate," he said. "A single taxi guy could bid on or acquire a permit versus a company."

Limiting the number of permits, he said, means it would be easier to inspect limousines for safety purposes.

Supporters of the PTC say it ensures that Hillsborough's vehicles for hire are cleaner and safer than in other counties.

But Storms, a Valrico Republican, has filed a bill calling for elimination of the agency altogether, arguing it's an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that has been plagued by scandal.

Over the years, the commission has been criticized for hiring an executive director who didn't meet job requirements, paying a lobbyist who had worked as a campaign consultant for the commission's board chairman and forcing a free electric shuttle service out of business.

The agency is overseen by a seven-member board that includes city council members and county commissioners. Both Storms and Norman have served on the board.

Storms said abolishing the agency would cut costs for rent, staff salaries and other administrative functions. The agency's most important duties, such as making sure vehicles for hire are safe and drivers aren't a danger to passengers, can be handled by the Hillsborough County staff, she said.

But Edith Stewart, the county's public affairs administrator, said it's not clear getting rid of the PTC would save money. And she said Storms' bill would mean more work for county commissioners. "They already have a heavy load," she said.

Plus, eliminating the PTC board would mean city officials would no longer have a say in regulating vehicles for hire, because members of the city councils serve on the board.

The Hillsborough County Commission and Tampa City Council recently voted not to support Storms' proposal.

Norman says he's likely to back Storms' bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City.

"I have reservations like she does about the PTC," Norman said. "Hillsborough is one in 67 counties that actually has that. I believe there's all kinds of duplication in there."

If the county takes over regulating the industry, the new rules he's suggesting would still apply, he said.

Storms said she would be willing to support the changes contained in Norman's bill if the commission is eliminated.

"What I don't want to do is put myself in a situation where I'm going to be over here saying let's give the PTC these abilities but meanwhile I'm trying to abolish them," she said.

Storms' proposal has won praise from owners of small transport operators who say the agency is in the pocket of big companies who make contributions to political campaigns.

Walter Kozak, who runs a passenger transportation service in Hernando County, is highly critical of Norman's bill.

Requiring limousines to be luxury vehicles is unfair, he said. Under the current law, the passenger vans he operates fit the limousine definition.

"My customers are old people. They can't drive. It's forcing people on Social Security to use a five-star transportation service," he said. "What's next? Are you going to force them to eat in five-star steak houses?"

And the cap on limousine permits is just a way to keep out new carriers, he said.

"It's protecting the existing limo companies from competition," he said.

As for the sales of the permits, Luis Lara, whose electric shuttle service was shut down by the PTC and the cab companies earlier this year, is all for it.

"It would be a win for them as a moneymaker, but at least they're giving other companies the opportunity to get permits," he said. "Selling them is better than being able to hold them all."

Part of the justification for allowing sales of the permits is that it provides permit holders with a revenue stream and assists them in estate planning.

Yellow Cab owner Lou Minardi said that means it will be easier to pass his business on to his sons. He said it will also allow him to sell permits to his drivers.

"It gives them more stake in the company," he said.

Harrison, co-sponsor of Norman's bill, said he hasn't decided how he feels about Storms' legislation.

"I'm very eager to hear her argument and her reasoning for filing the bill," he said.

Hillsborough County's legislative delegation will discuss both bills and other local bills Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the University of South Florida.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Norman bill boosts taxi, limo companies and controversial agency 12/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 11, 2010 9:59pm]
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