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Trump’s construction plans collide with Florida’s anti-tax fervor

Trump's plan requires major state investments to draw down federal money, but state officials are limiting the ability for local and state government to raise new revenue.
Construction workers build along State Road 836 in Miami on Monday.
Construction workers build along State Road 836 in Miami on Monday.
Published Feb. 14, 2018
Updated Feb. 14, 2018

President Donald J. Trump's ambitious $1.5 trillion plan to upgrade the nation's roads, bridges, airports and seaports over the next decade relies on massive investments by states at a time when Florida is poised to make it harder for legislators to raise taxes and fees.

Trump's infrastructure initiative was by far the most expensive promise he made to voters in the 2016 campaign. As details emerge, it's the states — not the federal government — that will pay much of the cost.

"Now let's see how badly you want it," Trump told a gathering of state and local officials at the White House this week.

Trump's plan requires major state investments to draw down federal money, and that could put Florida in a box.

"(Trump's plan) is requiring all the states to do all the work," said Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, "but we don't want to spend any money."

For months, Gov. Rick Scott, a Trump ally, and Florida legislative leaders have advocated a voter-approved change to the state Constitution to require a super-majority vote of two-thirds of both houses to increase any state tax or fee.

The proposal (HB 7001) has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, where passage is considered likely. If senators agree, the proposal will appear on the November general election ballot and will require approval of 60 percent of voters. If it is approved, it would be that much harder for the state to find extra revenue to foot the bill for new or improved infrastructure.

A more pressing issue for local governments is that state lawmakers continue to limit the revenue they can produce to pay for infrastructure, said Whit Blanton of Pinellas County's regional transportation planning agency.

Blanton cited a GOP-backed proposal that asks voters to raise Florida's homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000, which counties say would result in billions of dollars in lost revenue.

"We just don't have the capacity (to spend more) especially given the threats to local government revenue," Blanton said.

Republicans in Tallahassee not only oppose raising more money for transportation improvements, but in an election year they're actively proposing cutting a tax that pays for airport improvements.

Debate erupted at the state Capitol Wednesday over a proposed cut in an aviation fuel tax that helps pay for expansion to meet increasing public demand at airports such as Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, a dominant tourist destination that's perpetually under construction.

"We're lagging behind in our infrastructure," Broward County lobbyist Edward Labrador told the House Ways & Means Committee. "We can't have that in Florida. We're the third largest state in the union and we're growing."

Florida recently ranked highest among all states for road and bridge maintenance and highway spending as a percentage of its total budget in a state-by-state comparison by an investment firm, 24/7 Wall Street.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed spending $10.8 billion on transportation next year, but traffic gridlock keeps getting worse, especially in South Florida.

Congestion in Tampa Bay has prompted planning for major traffic projects along high-demand arteries, from new toll lanes and widened highways to replacing the Howard Frankland Bridge that links Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Florida's population is approaching 21 million and the state is projected to grow by an additional 5.4 million more people by 2030.

"Keeping up with growth is the biggest unmet need," state Transportation Secretary Mike Dew told senators at a confirmation hearing Tuesday.

The state's popularity to visitors — a point the governor makes often as an economic asset — also puts severe strain on the state's airports and highways.

More than half of all visitors to the state arrive by air, according to the Florida Airports Council.

Miami-Dade leaders say South Florida congestion, already among the worst in the nation, will get even worse.

"You're stressed out, out of your mind," said Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah. "It's nearing Los Angeles type of traffic."

Trump's plan is largely a presidential wish list to Congress, which holds budgetary authority.

About $100 billion would be allocated to incentives for state and local projects that can be built and maintained with non-federal money.

Federal grants would be capped at 20 percent of the project's cost, meaning that state and local governments would have to spend $4 for every federal dollar.

Under the current match rate, federal money makes up about 25 percent of total state transportation spending and the rest comes from Florida taxpayers.

"We would be in a pretty unique position to take advantage of any new federal programs," Dew told senators.

The historic lack of regional cooperation in Florida — especially in Tampa Bay and South Florida — has hobbled efforts to improve transportation.

Trump's plan means that counties "have to work harder to get our financial plans together," said Miami-Dade's director of transportation and public works, Alice Bravo. "A higher amount of funding is going to have to come from the state, county, municipal or private sector partners."

Every time Floridians fill their cars with gas, they support transportation spending.

Florida's gas tax, one of the highest in the country, is pegged to inflation and is adjusted annually. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents has been frozen for 25 years.

But there's little appetite in Tallahassee to shoulder more costs for costly public works projects.

"We can't create a structure where we're encouraging local governments to be fiscally irresponsible: 'Here's a pot of money, but you've got to go spin yourself into additional debt at the local level,'" said Rep. Brad Drake, a Panhandle Republican who chairs a House infrastructure subcommittee.