TALLAHASSEE — A political compromise struck Thursday will allow the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority to survive if the agency pays $19 million to the state by July 15.
An earlier Senate demand that the authority pay $69 million to the state for operating and maintenance costs sparked a near-mutiny in the House. Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, said it was unfair for the Legislature to "pick on" the authority. He threatened to defeat a must-pass budget implementing bill (HB 5003).
Extensive backroom discussions resulted in the lower figure, which Glorioso said was a reasonable outcome.
Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the $19 million figure reflects interest accrued to date along with repaying the balance of an operating loan. The new provision will be in a piece of legislation expected to pass both chambers today. The bill would require the approval of Gov. Charlie Crist.
This dispute, like many in the Legislature, was largely about politics. The Senate leadership deeply resented a House insistence that the road-building trust fund, supported by gas taxes paid by motorists, be swept of $160 million as a way of balancing the state budget.
"It's my way of raising the issue in a way that everybody pays attention to," Alexander said. "It was a way to very publicly raise the issue of the trust fund raids. It is a bit unfair to Rep. Glorioso. He's a good man. He's done good work. I'm sure he personally doesn't support these trust fund raids, but they're of great concern to us."
Alexander and other senators said transferring money out of the road fund could delay highway projects and eliminate desperately needed jobs.
Glorioso opposed the road-fund raid, but as House transportation budget chairman was obligated to carry out House policy.
He said he was upset with the way the issue was handled. "This was an afterthought," Glorioso said.
Joe Waggoner, executive director of the Expressway Authority, was grateful the payment demand was reduced.
"Anybody in my chair would be happy if somebody took a $50 million bill off your tab," he said. "We still have to come up with the $19 million, and this is at a time when we, like every other agency, are strapped for cash. We had plans for that money and now we have to put that cost into the mix with the challenge of still completing projects."
The initial request, though, would have "stopped us for decades from really being able to contribute," he said.
But Don Phillips, appointed to the Expressway Authority board by Crist, continued to decry the Legislature's move.
"This is an extremely poor way to settle disputes between party members," he said.
He said he agreed with Alexander that the highway trust fund should have been left alone.
"Two wrongs don't make a right," he said. "It's a shakedown."
He vowed to ask Crist to veto the budget provision.
"I will get on my knees and beg that man to veto it. It's a horrible, horrible thing," he said.
As the compromise was announced Thursday, representatives from the state's tolling agencies and transportation industry were meeting in Tampa. There was a lot of talk about the Senate's demands for payment.
"Everybody I talked to was buzzing," said Bob Hartnett, president and chief executive of Transportation and Expressway Authority Membership of Florida. "If it happens to Tampa-Hillsborough because some senator gets angry, or for whatever reason he did this, it could happen to another expressway authority."
Hartnett said the move threatens the authority's standing with bond rating agencies because there is an implication that the state is guaranteeing the bonds.
"This says to those people in those towers in New York, 'Hey, you've got to look at Florida. You can't trust the Legislature,' " he said.
Phillips agreed with that assessment.
"I don't think Wall Street wants to see that as a way we do business when they're considering investing billions of dollars in our state," he said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.