Tax cuts advance as Democrats take a walk


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A nearly $1 billion tax-cut package is ready to go to the House floor after getting backed Wednesday --- without Democrats voting --- by a key committee.

Democratic members of the Finance & Tax Committee walked out before the vote on the proposal (PCB 16-04), which almost matches a tax-cut total sought by Gov. Rick Scott but includes different details.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who serves on the committee and plans to vote for the bill on the House floor, said the members' exit was due in part to the "process" in which the bill was advanced.

"Once in a while, you know, things boil up at the last moment," Moskowitz said. "Being in the minority, there are so many things that we can and can't do and we'll have to resolve those issues on the floor."

Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, failed to get the package re-titled "an act related to corporate welfare and minimal assistance to families," but he said the package remains difficult to vote against because it includes positives, such as sales-tax "holidays" and measures involving veterans and low-income housing.

The vote came after Scott held a tailgate-like rally in the Capitol rotunda in which he spent a few minutes playing the game cornhole with some big-name lobbyists and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

"No pressure," Scott joked after a throw amid a crowd that included media, lobbyists and staff.

The cornhole game --- boards were designed to feature Scott's "1st For Jobs" logo --- was aimed at highlighting Scott's requests for more than $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million for business-recruitment incentives at the public-private Enterprise Florida.

The Senate is expected to take a more-measured approach to tax cuts than Scott wants, but it has included the $250 million in incentive funding in its initial budget.

"The way I look at it is that everything should be on the table," Gardiner said. "What's important is we are giving as much money back to the taxpayers, it's their money."

The House is pursuing the tax cuts in a single package, which includes much of Scott's request. However, the proposal doesn't include one of Scott's biggest asks --- the permanent elimination of corporate income taxes on manufacturers and retailers, projected as a $770 million annual reduction in state revenue.

Nor does the House proposal --- dubbed Wednesday with the hashtag "DownOnTaxes" --- include as many permanent, or recurring, cuts as the amount sought by Scott.

Finance & Tax Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the House's $991.7 million proposal could be brought before the full House next week.

"Hope springs that as we move this legislation forward and ultimately to final passage that we'll get even more input from the governor, more input from our colleagues in the Senate," Gaetz said after the meeting.

The package includes a 1 percentage-point reduction in a tax on commercial leases starting July 1, 2017 and would permanently eliminate a tax on manufacturing machinery. The machinery tax is not currently being collected, but it is set to return in 2017. The commercial lease tax would drop another percentage point in 2018 for a single year, under the House proposal.

The House plan would go along with Scott on a one-year sales-tax exemption on college textbooks and a 10-day sales tax holiday on back-to-school items.

Expanding upon Scott's proposals, the House package also includes a sales-tax holiday for items costing less than $1,000 at certain small businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It also would provide a tax holiday for hunting and fishing gear on a single day in August and for personal computers and computer-related accessories on a day in April 2017 deemed the "technology" holiday.

The holiday on fishing and hunting equipment was part of an initial $690 million House tax-cut proposal last year. Scott eventually signed a tax cut plan worth more than $400 million over two years that featured reductions in taxes on cell-phone bills, cable-TV bills, gun-club memberships, college textbooks and luxury boat repairs.

The House is also reviving other measures that failed to advance in 2015, such as lifting sales taxes at school book fairs for one year. Among other things, the current House measure would lift sales taxes on building materials, pest control and food and drink sold by veterans' organizations to their members.

The proposal would also expand the homestead exemption for surviving spouses of totally and permanently disabled veterans and establish a property-tax discount on certain property used for affordable housing, expected to help groups such as Habitat for Humanity.

When asked Wednesday if the dollar figure or the contents of the tax cuts were more important, Scott maintained that his proposals, along with prior tax-cut packages, are intended to create jobs and spur economic growth.

"We've cut taxes 50 times and what's happening, our revenues are growing," Scott said.

The proposal is moving forward as lawmakers have begun their budget discussions using recently updated figures by state economic forecasters. The new numbers slashed nearly $400 million from the estimate of how much lawmakers will have to spend in the budget year that begins July 1.