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Lawmakers approve tax cuts as session closes

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Floridians are in line for a pair of three-day sales tax “holidays” --- for the hurricane season and for back-to-school shopping --- and will no longer pay the “tampon tax,” under a measure approved by lawmakers Monday night.

But the slimmed-down tax cut package (HB 7109), which still requires Gov. Rick Scott's signature, went through a series of late changes amid continued volleying between the House and Senate as the 2017 legislative session came to a close, three days behind schedule.

The tax package --- which falls far short of Scott's request for $618.4 million in cuts --- also offers a modest reduction to a 6 percent tax on commercial rents.

The final creation of the package offered a glimpse of the fight between the House and the Senate as lawmakers had to extend the 60-day annual session --- scheduled to end last Friday --- to complete a budget.

The Senate, which last week trimmed the House's $300 million tax-cut proposal to just over $90 million next year, voted 34-4 on Monday to approve what Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, called a “reasonable tax package.”

A short-time later --- as the Senate announced it had passed “broad-based tax relief” --- the House voted 105-3 to send the measure back to the Senate, after tacking on a pair of amendments tied to county tax-collector offices. One of the amendments was part of an effort to allow counties to outsource license-tag services to private contractors.

The Senate responded by refusing to accept the changes. Stargel, who worked with the House on the package, said the problem was in how the eleventh-hour changes were proposed.

“It's about at the last minute, at the last hour, of the last day, of what has been a very difficult session, that we do an amendment that we were not prepared to do,” Stargel said.

With little comment, a short time later House withdrew its changes before voting 108-3 to approve the tax-cut package and send it to Scott.

A key feature of the package is a sales-tax holiday Aug. 4 to Aug. 6, timed with the start of the school year. During the period, shoppers will not have to pay sales taxes on clothes, backpacks and footwear under $60, school supplies that cost $15 or less, and personal computers and accessories valued under $750.

The tax break is expected to account for $34.8 million of the package.

A hurricane-season tax holiday, set for June 2 to June 4, would give shoppers a break on items such as self-powered radios, tarpaulins, first-aid kits, battery packs, and portable generators that sell for less than $750.

One of the highest-profile parts of the package focused on eliminating sales taxes on feminine-hygiene products --- an issue known as the “tampon tax.”

“I have gotten more positive email on that than I have on any other bill I've sponsored in this Legislature,” said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who sponsored legislation eliminate the tax.

The House had initially rolled out a nearly $300 million tax-cut package that also would have eliminated taxes on diapers and given a sales-tax holiday on Veterans Day for honorably discharged U.S. military veterans.

Also, the House proposal would have temporarily cut the commercial rent tax by 1.5 percentage points, a move projected to save businesses $190.7 million next fiscal year. Business groups have long lobbied for reducing or eliminating the tax.

But the final package did not include the veterans' tax holiday or diaper discount and reduced the commercial rent tax to 5.8 percent.

Republicans, nevertheless, touted the package.

“The money belongs to the people, not the government,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. ”When we go from one fiscal year to the next and our revenues increase --- if we believe in that principle --- then part of that increase goes back to the pockets of people who earned that money.”

But Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale, one of four Senate Democrats to vote against the bill, argued that sales taxes are needed to provide basic services, from roads and parks to “public and charter” schools.

“We choose to live in a civilized society,” Farmer said. “We live in a collective society, the greater good for all of us, so we all have to chip in.”

Republicans also are touting another decision during the session that could provide tax savings in the future to homeowners.

The Legislature approved a proposed constitutional amendment for the 2018 ballot that would expand the homestead exemption by $25,000.