By HILARY ROXE | Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE—Rep. David Rivera knows he can’t stop people from traveling to Cuba or other nations listed as sponsors of terrorism, but he wants to put a few hurdles in the way.
Under a bill approved by a House committee Wednesday, charter companies arranging such trips would be taxed, and Florida schools planning educational trips to those nations would have to submit itineraries and a list of participants to the state Department of Education.
Federal law prohibits tourism to countries that the U.S. Department of State considers terrorist states, but some religious, humanitarian, journalistic, and educational groups are allowed to travel to those nations with special authorization.
The bill (HB 1193) would tax charter companies organizing trips departing from Florida, regardless of whether those companies were based in the state. It wouldn’t apply to charter companies taking government workers or contractors to terrorist nations, and there would be no exceptions for visiting family members.
“I personally do not think anybody should be traveling to a terrorist state,’’ said Rivera, R-Miami. “I just want to know the trip is genuine.’‘
Because travel from Florida to the other six terrorist nations listed is limited, the provisions would apply most directly to trips to Cuba.
The tax would depend on the size of the plane used, or the number of people on a chartered boat. Federal laws restrict the state from charging per-head taxes, so the cost would be based on the size of the plane. Charter companies would have to pay an extra $4,000 to fly a 727 to Cuba, said Rivera, who predicted the tax would raise about $8 million annually.
A representative from Marazul Charters, Inc., one charter company that flies from Miami to Havana said the tax would have a “huge negative impact’’ on its business.
“Florida would seem to be imposing its own foreign policy,’’ said Bob Guild, program director at Marazul. Guild said half of the 35,000 people the company flies to Havana every year are Cuban-Americans going to visit their family.
The DOE wouldn’t have the authority to stop trips, but Rivera said it could deter “tourist junkets’’ or “retirees curious about nightlife in Havana’’ from skirting travel restrictions by joining school-sponsored trips that are educational in name only.
Rivera said the bill wasn’t intended “as some kind of panacea to prevent terrorism.’‘
Money from the proposed tax would feed a trust fund, set up through a second bill (HB 1195) to pay for security improvements at seaports and airports not covered by federal dollars. The Division of Emergency Management, which oversees Florida’s domestic security expenses, would set priorities and issue the money.