Refueled Push for Capital Airplane Gas Tax Exemption
Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda’s proposal to eliminate the commercial airline fuel tax on flights to Tallahassee from Florida airports may have been grounded last spring, but the freshman Democrat hopes the plan will be cleared for take-off next year.
Vasilinda proposed an end to the 6.9 cents per gallon fuel tax on flights to Tallahassee when she was still a candidate for the state House. The proposal’s wings were clipped when local officials and the Department of Transportation said it might negatively impact Tallahassee’s ability to contribute to an aviation grant pool – as well as the amount of money the city can take out of the pool.
The proposal, if enacted, could save airlines about $64,000 per year.
However, after an OPPAGA study last spring that summarized the lack of flights to and from the capital and adding language to the bill that would address the grant concerns, Vasilinda told the News Service of Florida on Wednesday that the plan could fly again next year.
“We’ve added new language that says any money that is exempted would not harm the city’s effort to receive grant money so that we’re being helpful, not counterproductive,” she said. “We’re really trying to drill down and make sure the concerns are addressed.”
To qualify for the proposed tax exemption, airlines would have to have a ticket counter at the Tallahassee airport, regularly schedule flights to and from the capital city and embark and disembark passengers here.
Vasilinda is also trying to better involve state transportation officials, who weren’t aware of her proposal earlier this year until after it was publicly announced. This time, she’s written a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousus to say the engines on the proposal were revving again.
“In preparation for the next session, I wish to make sure that if I decide to file this, or similar legislation again that it will be beneficial and not ultimately hurt the local airport,” Vasilinda wrote. “My desire is to sponsor legislation that would help bring additional and less expensive flights into the capital city. If a rebate is a viable option and one that would have no adverse affect on the aviation grants to the airport, then I may consider filing legislation. If it is not, this information will be helpful as I move forward.”
Vasilinda said that while it was natural for flight service to an airport the size of Tallahassee’s to be limited, it was important for the local and state governments to try to make the capital more accessible.
“With this airport and any mid-size airport, it’s a chicken and egg thing,” she said. “You have to have passengers who want to fly, but you have to flights that they can afford. So you either have to have good growth or a particular reason (to increase service). I think Tallahassee has a particular reason since it’s the capital of the fourth largest state in the country.”
Vasilinda, who argued the Legislature should have focused more on closing tax exemptions like the one on bottle water than on spending cuts during last year’s budgeting process, said the fuel tax exemption was different because its benefits were widespread.
“All these other industries fight tooth and nail to keep their exemptions,” she said. “I’m not one to support wily nily exemptions, but this doesn’t just benefit one industry. We have a specific reason to have more flights. It’s public policy, not just economic development. We need to get regular folks up here to petition their government. (Now) tickets are expensive and they are prohibitive to small business, disabled people and elderly folks.”
At the current prices, the Tallahassee airport averages between 720,000 and 750,000 passengers per year.
Vasilinda added that it is not unusual for cities to try to use tax exemptions to lure airlines to their airports. She pointed to Delta Airlines, which chose Atlanta over Birmingham to be its center of operations because Atlanta offered tax breaks Birmingham would not.
Delta is one of five major commercial airlines currently servicing Tallahassee, joining U.S. Air, American Airlines, Continental, and Northwest.
Earlier this year, two Tallahassee carriers announced new service from the capital to non-Florida cities. U.S. Airways said it will start non-stop flight service from Tallahassee to Washington's Reagan National Airport (DCA) in the first or second quarter of next year and American Airlines began a second non-stop daily flight from Tallahassee to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) in August after beginning the route in June.