Florida unemployment reached a new high of 12.3 percent in March, far above the national average of 9.7 percent. Yet state lawmakers could make those numbers worse with a House plan to redirect $466 million in transportation dollars next year to help pay for everything from prisons to schools. The Senate needs to reject such a short-sighted decision that would undermine the state's future and eliminate jobs instead of creating them.
Building and maintaining roads is one of the few ways the state directly generates jobs. Every time the state launches a major road project — using money from fuel taxes and federal funds — it puts construction contractors to work along with their employees. And each of those jobs is particularly precious these days, where a burst housing bubble has cost the state roughly 70,000 construction jobs.
But a robust transportation system is also a key state mission upon which every Floridian depends. Roads deliver food to the grocery store and workers to their jobs. Already, in this recession, declines in gas tax revenues along with the Legislature's earlier sweeps of transportation funds have delayed an estimated $6.4 billion in projects, according to the Florida Transportation Commission.
Fail to spend $466 million next year, the commission said, and another $3.1 billion in projects will be delayed, risking as many as 88,000 jobs. The potential impact in Tampa Bay region: a delay in widening the congested Ulmerton Road in mid Pinellas County; improving I-275 between downtown Tampa and the West Shore area; and improving State Road 54 in Pasco County.
State lawmakers will spend this week negotiating final provisions on a budget compromise. The Republican leadership's refusal to consider modernizing the state's tax structure — by taxing Internet sales, removing sales tax exemptions or closing corporate tax loopholes — has left them with too few choices to meet the state's needs. But Senate leaders need to stand firm. Failing to spend transportation funds on roads is in no one's interest.