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Penny gas tax could kill clean energy bill

Much-anticipated legislation to encourage clean and renewable energy in Florida appears in danger of dying, but not because of concerns over the inclusion of nuclear energy. Instead, a penny gas tax threatens to squelch the "20 by 2020" proposal, one of Governor Charlie Crist's legislative priorities.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jim King, chair of the chamber's energy and utilities committee, said the penny tax on fuel is necessary to ensure the renewable and clean energy legislation is actually implemented. It would generate roughly $90 million a year, half to go into a trust fund for helping to develop renewable energies, and half to go into general revenue.

"Without that money, this bill won't go anywhere," he said. "It will just look good and sound good."

King, tasked by Senate President Jeff Atwater to get the energy legislation passed, has spent weeks trying to come up with a proposal that appeases groups ranging from environmentalists to big utilities to biomass producers like sugar companies. He told senators including Mike Haridopolos that he is willing to amend the bill to allow federal stimulus dollars to replace the gas tax -- but only if the stimulus dollars are determined to be eligible.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he was going to vote for SB 1154 -- until he saw the tax tucked in. The Senate transportation committee chairman worries higher gas prices will further deplete the Department of Transportation's trust fund, which the agency relies on to fund road projects. A recent revenue estimate found the trust fund already will be depleted in years to come because cash-strapped Floridians are cutting back on driving amid rising gas costs.

"These are the implications you have when you start raising the gas tax," Fasano said. "If it was that easy, we would have raised the gas tax a long time ago."

The committee voted 6-3 for the bill, with Sens. Fasano, Dan Gelber (D) and Mike Haridopolos (R) opposed. But even some who voted in favor, including Sen. Steve Oelrich, voiced reservations indicating they might not vote yes unless the gas tax issue is resolved.

Meanwhile, King said the bill's fate might also be dim thanks to lack of enthusiasm from the House.

"I have no idea if this bill or anything like it has a life of one nanosecond in the House," he said.