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Robbing roads is dead end

Sunday, March 20, 2011 | The Tampa Tribune

Construction workers who lost their jobs in recent years are losing hope. From January to January, Florida’s construction industry lost 24,000 jobs. Nationwide, the unemployment rate in the industry is 21.8 percent.

Those are numbers state lawmakers should keep in mind as they try to balance this year’s budget. With no new federal stimulus spending on the way and homebuilding stagnant, the Legislature should resist efforts to raid the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to fill budget holes elsewhere.

Diverting gasoline taxes for schools and other general needs is a shortsighted solution. To attract good jobs, Florida must maintain a highway network with the extra capacity needed by companies that might relocate here. Traffic jams with no relief in sight suggest a state in decline.

Obviously, highway safety and public mobility are also important priorities. One pothole can cause far more damage in an hour than the cost of fixing it.

There is also a question of public trust. Drivers assume that the fuel taxes they pay at the pump are user fees that will be spent on roads and other transportation projects. This year, they could be wrong.

In the state House, the Transportation and Economic Development Subcommittee wants to sweep money out of the trust fund for other expenses. Last year, former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a similar effort. If it gets that far this year, Gov. Rick Scott should do the same.

One technique being considered to grab the money this year is to levy an 8 percent service fee on every dollar that goes into the highway fund. That would remove $800 million from the state’s five-year work plan, says Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association.

The loss of that money would stop $2.5 billion worth of infrastructure projects. That’s because, as Burleson explains, the trust fund is not like a savings account holding a pot of cash. The transportation department plans ahead so that as money flows into the fund, it flows right back out to pay builders for jobs in progress.

The process allows far more work to be started than can immediately be paid for. If those plans are disrupted, the damage will be greater than the amount of money diverted. Burleson estimates
a major raid on the trust fund could eliminate 70,000 jobs in the industry he represents.

It is often said that government can’t create jobs. But it’s also true that Florida’s economy depends on government-created roads and bridges, and it is widely agreed that existing levels of spending aren’t keeping pace with travel demands.

And unemployment also has big costs to society that lawmakers should not discount, with unemployment insurance payments being the most obvious. Long-term unemployment can also lead to foreclosure, bankruptcy, Medicaid claims and a number of other costs.

“I’ve cut back my workforce 50 percent,” says Jeffrey Nelson, president of family-owned Nelson Construction, based in Palm Harbor. “Many of my competitors are out of business.”

“We had some stimulus work at MacDill Air Force Base that kept us from laying people off, but we’re back to cutting again.”

The company now employs about 85 people. Burleson says similar and unprecedented economic pain is being felt throughout the industry.

Many of the same people who advocate cuts in property taxes and corporate income taxes also say the Legislature needs more discretion in how it uses a variety of trust funds dedicated to specific purposes, including transportation.

They want to take credit for tax cuts while obscuring the costs. If gasoline taxes are to be dumped into the general pot, to be spent on whatever lawmakers please, then it is fair to ask why fuel is so heavily taxed.

Gasoline purchased to commute to work and to deliver products to market is not a luxury the public can do without. Neither are good, safe highways. If the trust fund is raided, signs should be put on every pump thanking motorists for helping pay for such things as schools and lawmakers’ salaries.

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