TALLAHASSEE — Florida's free program that helps highway motorists faces shutdown unless it can flag down more money.
Financially, the Road Rangers are riding on life support, said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a lawmaker aiding a last-ditch effort to save them. Fasano is the Senate's transportation spending chairman.
House and Senate lawmakers lopped the program in the proposed budget, following Gov. Charlie Crist's recommendation. It would save nearly $21-million as the state faces a $3.2-billion revenue shortfall.
It would also cut a program that has assisted people roughly 2-million times since 2000, helping stranded motorists, aiding police at crashes and removing road debris.
"It was a slap in the face for us," said Larry Jones, a Road Ranger with Anchor Towing in Tampa Bay. "It's about being safe, period. You don't have to worry about whether you have AAA or another roadside service. And some people just can't afford tow truck services or someone who can change tires."
On Tuesday morning, after Floridians sent messages to Fasano criticizing the move — even warning crime would go up — he told a lobbyist for contractors who provide the service that there's a glimmer of hope. By nightfall, senators negotiating the budget decided to ask the House today to spend $11-million to restore part of the service, Fasano said.
Lobbyist Ron Book, whose clients include Anchor Towing, said later the cuts could bankrupt the companies contracted to provide the service. "They don't have the ability to absorb the cuts in this kind of economy," Book said of the companies.
Rep. Dean Cannon, Fasano's counterpart on the budget in the House, said Tuesday afternoon he's willing to listen to a proposal but hadn't seen a firm one. Lawmakers want to finish negotiations by midday today.
"Right now, they're zeroed out," Cannon said of Road Rangers.
Florida Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos said the department hopes to find other ways to raise money to help pay for the service, if lawmakers add back money. One idea is sponsorships for the "valued program," she said.
Jones joined the Road Rangers nearly six years ago after working as a technician at a hospital. Since then, he feels he's done a lot of good. He has moved debris from the roads, towed stalled vehicles out of traffic, changed tires and offered his cell phone to stranded motorists. He and the other Road Rangers carry fire extinguishers and are trained in first aid. "I just love to help people," he said.
He remembers stopping at Interstate 275 in Tampa near Busch Boulevard after a woman's car had stalled. "She didn't know what to do, didn't know who to call," he said. "She said her car won't move. I said, this is a free service. We can help you get onto the shoulder. We carry cell phones.
"She couldn't believe it. She actually couldn't believe it."
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.