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Legislative leaders question gas tax suspension

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

A push by Gov. Ron DeSantis to suspend the state’s gas tax for five months this summer and fall is stalling, as legislative leaders say they want to find other ways to help Floridians.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson on Thursday questioned the gas-tax proposal because they said many of the motorists who would benefit from the 25-cent-a-gallon discount wouldn’t be from Florida.

While the proposal could still come up when the House and Senate negotiate a tax package in the coming weeks, Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the House is focused on issues such as asking voters in November to increase the homestead property-tax exemption for people such as teachers, military members and first responders (HJR 1 and HB 1563).

“The reality is, I have a concern about the gas tax as it relates to out-of-state visitors,” Sprowls told reporters. “I think that our best estimate is hundreds of millions of dollars of that gas tax (break) would go to people who don't live in the state. You take, for example, HJR 1, which is a homestead exemption that applies to police officers, firefighters, first responders, child protection investigators, active-duty military, that's something that obviously applies not only to Floridians but to people we need to live and work, you know, close to our community. So that's a priority of the House. And that's what we're focused on.”

Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is running for state agriculture commissioner, said no proposals are “off the table” with four weeks left in the legislative session. But the proposed gas-tax break, he said, is “something that we would have to have a real conversation about as to why we go to that specific tax that a lot of Floridians wouldn't see."

Instead, Simpson pointed to proposals for another round of sales-tax “holidays,” which DeSantis has also supported. Such holidays could give sales-tax breaks to people buying back-to-school items and hurricane supplies. Also, lawmakers last year approved what they called a “Freedom Week” holiday that gave a wide range of sales-tax breaks around the Fourth of July.

“I just think we want to make sure that we target the ones that are appropriate for our citizens,” Simpson said.

State economists recently estimated a return of “Freedom Week” could save shoppers $57.7 million by not having to pay sales taxes on items such as grills, bicycles, fishing and camping gear, kayaks and canoes, tickets for concerts, movies and ball games, gym memberships and even sunscreen.

DeSantis has called for suspending the state gas tax for five months, starting July 1, a move that could save motorists about $1 billion. He would use federal stimulus money to make up the lost gas-tax revenue, which ordinarily goes to transportation projects.

"I want to provide people relief in any way we can,” DeSantis, who is running for re-election in November, said during an appearance last week in Miami.

“I think the most direct way we can provide people relief is a gas-tax holiday, so that they're saving at the pump,” DeSantis continued. “I mean, if we could bring the cost down from you know, $3.30 (a gallon) … I (would) like for it to go down. But you know, we can get that lower. That makes a huge difference, especially in a place like Miami-Dade County, where you’ve got so many people that commute from the western part of the county over into different parts of downtown and other areas that are further east. They're driving, you know, maybe 50, 60 miles a day, some of them. And to be able to have some relief on the cost of gas, I think is something that's very, very significant.”

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who are Democratic candidates for governor, separately tossed out the idea of a “gas tax holiday” shortly before DeSantis initially announced his proposal Nov. 22 during appearances at convenience stores in Daytona Beach and Jacksonville.

While a final tax package likely will not be completed until near the end of the legislative session, the House and Senate have been moving forward with the proposal to increase homestead exemptions for people such as teachers, military members and first responders.

The proposed additional homestead exemption would apply to property values between $100,000 and $150,000, though concerns have been raised that the move would shift costs to businesses and residents of rental properties.

The House version of the proposal needs approval from the State Affairs Committee before it could go to the full House. The Senate version (SJR 1746 and SB 1748) needs approval from the Appropriations Committee before it could go to the full Senate.

If the homestead-exemption proposal clears the Legislature, it would go before voters in November as a constitutional amendment.