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Could toll breaks continue? DeSantis administration says maybe

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses attendees at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

As Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares proposals for the 2024 legislative session, continuing to give financial breaks to frequent users of toll roads could be on the table.

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez hinted at the issue Saturday as she spoke during the Republican Party of Florida’s “Freedom Summit” in Orlando. A year-long program of providing credits to motorists who frequently use toll roads is scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

“Our administration is committed to relieving some of that financial burden, relieving some of that stress,” Nunez said during the event at the Gaylord Palms Resort. “And we’re going to continue to do so by providing tax relief and toll relief.”

The event focused on the 2024 presidential race, with speakers including DeSantis, former President Donald Trump and other candidates. State leaders also touted actions they have taken, as the GOP has complete control of Florida government.

DeSantis, who is expected in the coming weeks to outline a proposed budget for the 2024-2025 fiscal year, discussed measures that have expanded gun rights, targeted the Chinese Communist Party by restricting land purchases by people from China and removed such things as “diversity, equity and Inclusion” programs from schools and businesses.

During her comments, Nunez pointed to a package of tax breaks that passed for the current fiscal year, and she included the toll-credit program as a way “to reduce the burden caused by the Biden administration.”

The toll program went into effect on January 1. It provides 50 percent credits to people who use SunPass or other Florida transponders and make 35 or more toll-road trips a month.

At the time, Moody’s Investors Service warned that Florida lawmakers should anticipate some “political and social” pressure when the program ends.

The financial rating agency said the program would “buoy” toll-road demand without reducing revenues because the state is offsetting lost toll dollars. But the agency also questioned what could occur when the temporary program expires.

“If individual toll roads decide to continue this program beyond its expiration or implement other major discounts without any offsetting mechanisms from the state, toll revenue will decline despite the induced demand,” Moody’s said in a report. “If roads decide to revert to full toll rates in 2024, they will face political and social pressure from drivers when the discounts expire.”

The program, approved by the Legislature during a December 2022 special session, expanded on a similar credit program that touched fewer toll roads.

Through September, the state had issued $343.4 million in credits through the current program.

Other state leaders who spoke during Saturday’s party event included Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, who discussed a need to continue piecing together a major wildlife corridor and reiterated his support for securing $300 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which is designed to keep swaths of rural land from commercial and residential development.

"We buy development rights," Simpson said. "We want that property to stay in private hands. When it stays in private hands, it stays on your local tax rolls supporting your local systems. When it stays in private hands, we don't have to come back a few years later to get more money to take care of the land we just bought."

The $300 million request would equal what was put into the program two years ago, when Simpson was president of the state Senate. DeSantis vetoed $100 million that lawmakers put into the 2023-2024 budget.

Meanwhile, state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, alleging a “weaponization” of the federal government against Trump, advocated for a new state law that would establish a legal defense fund for presidential candidates in Florida “when they are targeted by politically motivated prosecutors.”

“When these men and women are brave enough to put themselves on the ballot, we should protect them,” Patronis said.

Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, is trying to fend off numerous criminal charges, including allegations that he tried to subvert the 2020 election and improperly retained national-security information.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.