TALLAHASSEE — In a tough economy, Rep. Will Weatherford says he just wants to give businesses a fair shake.
The Wesley Chapel Republican has authored a bill that would force local governments to offer road builders more work. Cities and counties couldn't even make asphalt, let alone do high-dollar projects themselves.
That his father-in-law, the former House Speaker Allan Bense, happens to be in the road paving business has nothing to do with Weatherford's effort, he said.
"That's clearly not the case," Weatherford said. "What I'm doing is making sure the local governments focus on their mission, and not get into the construction business."
Weatherford said he began the legislation after learning at a contractors conference last year that Highlands County was buying an asphalt plant for $2.6-million. If it starts up this year, it's believed to be the only government-run plant in the state. That's one more than contractors want.
However, Highlands officials said it's needed because the asphalt market isn't big enough there. Though the county is considered financially constrained, officials told lawmakers this month that the purchase would ultimately save money.
Minutes of a Highlands County Commission meeting in 2007 show road builders pressed the county to not use the plant. They included Jim Warren, executive director of the Asphalt Contractors Association of Florida. Bense's GAC Contractors is listed as a member of the group but it doesn't appear to have a leadership role.
Bense, a partner in the company, said the bill would not benefit GAC Contractors, based in Panama City.
"In my community, my county, in fact the whole northwest Florida area, our communities are not in that (road paving) business, so it's irrelevant to me," Bense said.
But the Bense-Weatherford ties are just one reason lobbyists for cities and counties have cringed at the bill (HB 683). The Florida Association of Counties worries it could hamstring governments financially, and cost taxpayers more money.
Contractors say it would keep government out of a line of work it doesn't belong, and keep public bidding programs strong.
"It's the perfect marriage of two basic tenets this Legislature has had for years," said Robert Vezina, an attorney for the Florida Transportation Builders Association.
It's unclear how much government roadwork the bill would open to business, but most agree it would be in the millions of dollars. Maintenance projects — including buildings, sidewalks and utilities — that cost more than $280,000 would have to be bid out. A government would have to prove it could do it more cheaply, or vote specifically to do it in-house.
That means Pasco County, for example, could not have automatically spent $1.2-million repaving Chancey Road in-house.
Rep. Michael Scionti, D-Tampa, said Tampa officials reported doing $430-million in projects overall, leaving $10-million to $14-million done in-house.
While House committees have moved the bill close to passage, Weatherford has had difficulty convincing the Senate. Its version (SB 2148), sponsored by Mike Haridopolos, awaits its first hearing Thursday. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, even revoked his name as a co-sponsor because Fasano worried it would hurt Pasco County. Fasano said Tuesday he probably will support the bill if changes that help the county are made.
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.