DeSantis’ aide first pitched October gas tax break, emails show

The emails rebut the narrative that lawmakers proposed the October break, which will go into effect right before the election.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks before he signs a record $109.9 billion state budget Thursday at The Villages.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks before he signs a record $109.9 billion state budget Thursday at The Villages. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | AP ]
Published June 7, 2022|Updated June 8, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Gas prices hit another record high Tuesday, but Floridians must wait nearly four months before they can save 25 cents on every gallon at the pump.

They may have Gov. Ron DeSantis to thank for not only the tax break — but for the wait.

Although GOP lawmakers took credit for cutting the gas tax this October, emails show that a top DeSantis aide suggested it first.

Days after DeSantis publicly called for a five-month suspension of Florida’s gas tax last year, his team drafted legislation to delay the break until October.

Republican lawmakers said they decided on October because it’s the month with the fewest tourists, although data doesn’t support that claim. Lawmakers said they wanted to ensure Floridians, not tourists, would benefit from the tax break.

But critics note that October is also a crucial month for DeSantis’ reelection campaign. It’s when voters start casting ballots for him and his Democratic challenger in the November governor’s race.

“People need relief now but their Legislature wants to wait until October to provide it,” said Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, after lawmakers passed the cut in March. Taddeo had been running for governor, but this week dropped her bid to run for a congressional seat. “Everything here is political and about elections — it is not about taking care of people.”

Since DeSantis signed the October gas tax cut into law last month, gas prices have continued to rise, reaching a record average of $4.768 per gallon Tuesday, according to AAA.

‘Put this in bill drafting’

DeSantis first proposed cutting the gas tax on Nov. 22 last year, blaming President Joe Biden for rising gas prices.

“We want to protect Floridians as much as we can against the inflation that we’re seeing,” the governor said. He called on the Legislature to temporarily cancel the gas tax for roughly six months.

Nine days later, DeSantis’ director of legislative affairs, Stephanie Kopelousos, drafted legislation to make the cut for October only.

“Can you please put this in bill drafting?” she wrote on Dec. 1 to Dee Alexander, an aide to Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, the vice-chairperson of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee. The email was obtained from American Oversight, a progressive-leaning group that requests public records from state and federal governments.

The draft legislation was among dozens of bills DeSantis’ office asked senators to file and sponsor ahead of this year’s legislative session.

When DeSantis released his proposed budget eight days later, it called for a five-month reprieve from the state’s gas tax, using $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars to fill the hole in the state’s transportation trust fund.

Yet on Dec. 15, Bean’s aide responded to Kopelousos with a slightly modified bill that still included an October timeline.

Later that month, and into the first week of January, DeSantis’ office and the Senate worked together to rewrite the legislation to have the tax break last from July 1 to Nov. 30.

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A five-month tax break was the governor’s intent all along, according to DeSantis spokesperson Bryan Griffin, who produced emails from other DeSantis advisors in January advocating for the longer break.

He said that the Legislature was to blame for wanting the October break.

“In the course of the legislative process, the governor’s tax holiday idea was adopted but ultimately written by the Legislature to only run for one month,” Griffin said in an email. “It is our understanding that October was selected because it follows peak summer tourism season, so the tax holiday would inure to the greatest benefit of Florida residents rather than out-of-state visitors.”

When asked why DeSantis’ aide, Kopelousos, first requested an October timeline, Griffin did not say.

Why October?

After publicly resisting cutting the gas tax, the Legislature’s two budget writers made a surprise announcement during the final days of the legislative session that they agreed to cut it, but only during October.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, told reporters that it was because May and October were the months with the fewest tourists, which meant that Floridians would benefit from the cut more than people from out of state.

“It had nothing to do with the election,” she said.

The decision to pass a motor fuel tax break, but wait months to implement it, is unusual among the handful of states that have imposed such holidays this year. About the same time as Florida lawmakers announced the October cut, Georgia lawmakers voted to cut their 29 cent gas tax immediately. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp recently extended the cut until July 14.

There is no official data to back up the claim that October or May are the lowest months for tourism.

Visit Florida, the agency that produces the state’s official tourism estimates, doesn’t have monthly figures and doesn’t know anyone who does, a spokesperson for the agency said. (The agency produces tourism estimates quarterly.)

Senators relied on the state’s monthly tax collection reports, Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said, which include six categories, of which “tourism” is one.

“In the tourism category, October has been the lowest month for the last decade, which is the time period our staff evaluated,” she said.

But the state’s monthly reports reflect economic activity for the month prior, those reports caution, so October reports reflect activity largely from September. On top of that, the “tourism” category includes in-state spending by Floridians, such as Floridians going out to eat, which waters down the metric.

When asked whether senators took that into account, Betta said, “Our staff evaluated many data points, all of which point to the early fall — October timeframe that was chosen.”

Other data does not support that October is the month with the fewest tourists.

Between 2017 and 2019, February was the lowest month for motor fuel consumption in the state, followed by September. In those same years, September was the lowest month for local governments collecting tourist development taxes, although that data reflects economic activity from August.

As one of Florida’s primary economic drivers, tourism is surprisingly consistent year-round.

In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the fourth quarter saw 30.8 million tourists, the lowest of the quarters, while the first quarter, the highest, saw 35.5 million — a swing of only 15%, according to Visit Florida’s estimates. Last year, the difference between the fourth quarter (the lowest) and the third quarter (the highest) was less than 5%.

Bean, whose aide drafted the language requested by Kopelousos, said he didn’t know precisely how his office settled on October.

“I know right now, I could use a quarter off my gas,” Bean said. “Whatever it is (in October), hopefully Floridians will appreciate that we give them back their money, because it is their money.”