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Tax fireworks in place of thwarted regulation

On the final evening of 2008, someone called Zephyrhills authorities reporting an intentionally set car fire at Sky Dive City. The result was a destroyed vehicle, a man taken to the hospital for treatment of burns and unanswered questions.

It remains an open investigation because "we still don't know conclusively how the car caught on fire,'' said Zephyrhills Fire Chief Keith A. Williams. But they have a pretty good idea. Firefighters found a number of fireworks casings in and around the car that ignited during a party at the airport property.

Exactly one year later, on the last day of 2009, a 32-year-old Zephyrhills man lost three fingers when a fire cracker exploded in his hand.

Happy New Year.

Every New Year's Eve and every Fourth of July, Zephyrhills is overrun by agriculturalists, City Manager Steve Spina deadpanned this week to state legislators.

It's not a phenomenon exclusive to this city in southeast Pasco. The state law allowing sale and possession of explosives for agricultural purposes is exploited twice a year by amateur enthusiasts blowing up what are referred to as consumer fireworks — sky rockets, mortars, fire crackers and assorted other pyrotechnics. Consider the results:

Last Fourth of July, a 22-year-old New Port Richey man suffered cuts on his lip and swelling to his face and eyes when he tried to light a mortar firework that blew up in his face.

The same night a 2-year-old girl watching fireworks outside her family home in Weeki Wachee suffered second-degree burns when a homemade firework dropped from the sky onto her arm.

On July 4, 2007, a 5-year-old boy was injured in a fireworks tent explosion on U.S. 19, Port Richey. The boy's family sued Galaxy Fireworks, which said $70,000 worth of fireworks detonated. The doofus who set the fire by lighting a $130 mortar inside the tent was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for arson.

Zephyrhills decided it had enough. In 2009, it crafted an ordinance eliminating seasonal fireworks sales at outdoor sites. Just one problem. The city's ability to regulate those sales was stripped away by the Legislature two years earlier. Then, reacting to a proposed Pasco County ordinance to prohibit sales from roadside tents, the fireworks lobby persuaded legislators in Tallahassee to approve a retroactive measure — killing the new Pasco rules and establishing a task force to come up with statewide recommendations.

The task force released its dud of a report two years ago. The Legislature did nothing. One of the ideas tossed around was that governments provide a location where the public could go to ignite their personal fireworks. Think of it as sort of a dog park for pyrotechnics instead of pooches.

"A designated area where we could blow each other up? I thought it was quite ludicrous,'' said state Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey.

The moratorium on new local government regulations remains in place because the Legislature did not act by July 1, 2008, as the task force recommended. In other words, status quo was just fine among legislators bowing to the wishes of yet another well-financed special interest.

''I didn't realize what deep pockets the fireworks industry has,'' said Legg.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, expressed similar sentiment about "a strong fireworks lobby fighting against the locals.''

So out of curiosity, I picked a random fireworks company, Galaxy, which retains Guy Spearman III as a lobbyist. Spearman has 26 other clients during the 2009 legislative session as well. Then I ran the lobbyist's name through the Division of Elections campaign finance data base and found he contributed $157,000 to Florida candidates, committees and political parties in the 2008 election cycle and donated $48,000 so far for the 2010 races.

And I was not surprised to see the maximum $500 contributions to many local legislators, including Reps. Robert Schenck of Spring Hill, Peter Nehr of north Pinellas, Legg and Weatherford.

Well-financed, indeed. And, if not in the capital hallways, then in the courtroom. Litigation is standard operating procedure. Galaxy, based in Tampa, sued Pasco County in 2000 for failing to lift a temporary ban — tied to drought and wildfire fears — and then butted heads in court with Hernando County a few years later when the county refused to permit its outdoor tents and cited the company for code violations when it started peddling its inventory from empty lots.

Legg said he is hopeful some fireworks legislation will emerge from the House Agriculture Committee. If so, he said, he plans to try to amend it to rescind the moratorium and return to local governments the ability to control fireworks sales. Weatherford acknowledged the Legislature has had more pressing matters since the 2008 task force report, mostly balancing the budget.

So maybe that's how you can discourage fireworks proliferation, enhance public safety, still allow the public to purchase their pyrotechnics and simultaneously help balance the state budget.

Tax the explosives exorbitantly.

Tax fireworks in place of thwarted regulation 01/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 3:40pm]
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