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Enticing JetBlue to Tallahassee offers statewide benefits

With the state budget set to be passed Friday, attention will soon turn to the process of identifying dubious local projects funded within the budget deal. Budget “turkeys,” as they are called, are held up for scorn by Florida TaxWatch and often vetoed by the governor.

As governor, Jeb Bush established firm criteria for funding member projects. To escape his veto pen, projects must go through the full legislative process as well as have a statewide interest. Charlie Crist also whacked member projects during his term.

Florida TaxWatch uses similar criteria to define turkeys. With the late insertion of more than $120 million in projects, TaxWatch and Gov. Rick Scott’s team will enter a target-rich environment.

One of those projects is the dedication of $1 million to lure JetBlue Airways to Tallahassee Airport. At first glance, this would appear to be a local project with little statewide benefit, but the facts say otherwise.

Flying into and out of Tallahassee is an adventure in logistics and economics. For example, Delta SkyMiles members wishing to fly to Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando or Fort Myers must first fly north to Atlanta.

There are other options with a smaller carrier, but cost is a regular point of concern among all carriers flying to and from the capital. Fares are always higher in Tallahassee, prompting families and some business people to drive to Jacksonville to catch a far less expensive flight on Delta or other airlines such as JetBlue.

For example, a recent trip to Washington, D.C., would have cost $1,000 from Tallahassee. By making the drive to Jacksonville, parking the car for two days, paying extra for fuel and taking a nonstop JetBlue flight, I saved more than $500. That would be $2,000 for a family of four.

There are other examples of why this item has direct statewide relevance. Tallahassee is also the home of Florida State University and Florida A&M University. Faculty, staff and administrators are required to travel in their roles and that travel is paid for by the taxpayers of Florida.

FSU clearly recognizes the financial benefits of lower airfares and convenience. The university recently pledged $1 million toward the effort to lure JetBlue to Tallahassee.

All state employees out of driving range needing to visit the state capital must far too often pay exorbitant airfares to do so. Why is JetBlue so important?

The word is competition. A new carrier coming in and taking passengers to and from south Florida at lower fares will drive down the prices charged by competitors flying to the same cities.

Many will remember a similar arrangement with Air Tran during the Bush administration. In that one, the state gave guarantees to the carrier.

This time, more than $2 million in commitments to use JetBlue each year are the carrot. If they can bring competitive airfares to Tallahassee, they should have no problem finding customers to use their product.

Their competitors, especially Delta, will ultimately lower their fares in response. They would hope to drive JetBlue from the marketplace if JetBlue indeed comes to TLH. It worked with Air Tran, which pulled up stakes after a few years.

With the potential of saving millions of taxpayer dollars on travel over the next few years, the state’s $1 million pledge is cost effective and will present a return on investment. This has an effect on all taxpayers.

This item may fit the clinical definition of a TaxWatch “turkey,” but it meets the governor’s requirement of statewide benefit. Governor Scott, please leave this appropriation alone.

• • •

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee.

Written By

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at rjsparks24@gmail.com and Twitter @BobSparksFL.

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