Senate diverges from House on tax limit

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In an issue that could be part of the mix of end-of-session negotiations, a Senate panel Tuesday approved a proposal that would make it harder to raise taxes -- but didn’t go as far as House leaders and Gov. Rick Scott want.

The House last month overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 7001) that would require two-thirds votes of both legislative chambers to raise taxes or fees in the future, up from the usual majority votes.

But the Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee took up the measure Tuesday and effectively replaced it with a Senate proposal that would require three-fifths votes of both legislative chambers -- an easier standard to meet than two-thirds -- to raise taxes. The Senate proposal, among other things, also would not require such “supermajority” votes to raise fees.

Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, pointed to potentially wide definitions of fees that could apply to such things as college tuition and amounts charged to state employees for their health insurance.

“Fees was rather broad, so we have decided not to include fees in the Senate proposal,” Stargel said.

In the closing weeks of legislative sessions, it is common for the House and Senate to take differing positions on priorities of legislative leaders. Those issues then become part of the deal-making that helps end the session.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Scott have pushed for the proposal to require two-thirds legislative votes to raise taxes or fees. The 60-day legislative session is scheduled to end March 9. If the House and Senate can reach agreement on the proposed constitutional amendment, the issue would go on the November ballot for voters to decide.

While the Republican-dominated House and Senate differ on the details of the proposal at this point, they appear to agree on the direction of making it harder to raise taxes. But many Democrats and groups such as the Florida AFL-CIO oppose the idea, as was evident in a 4-2 party-line vote Tuesday in the Senate subcommittee.

Opponents said, in part, that Florida is already a low-tax state and that the proposal could make it harder to meet future needs. Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, pointed to a need to address climate change and sea-level rise.

“If we are barely, if at all, taking any action, why would we, before we even start taking action to address these critical long-term needs, hamstring future legislatures on being able to address that and other critical needs that are going to be coming down in the future?” Rodriguez asked.

While the Senate plan wouldn’t go as far as the House, Stargel said it “does maintain the goal of a supermajority” vote.

“The goal of this bill is the same of my ideology, and I believe some (others), which is to require a supermajority if you are going to raise the cost of doing business in the state of Florida on the citizens of the state of Florida,” she said.