National News

Florida House passes new hurdle for taxes, fees; Democrats call it 'bumper sticker politics'

Posted January 27, 2018 12:07 p.m. EST

TALLAHASSEE -- In an election-year appeal to tax-conscious voters, the Florida House voted Thursday to make it harder for future state legislators to raise taxes or fees.

By a lopsided vote of 80-29, the House endorsed a supermajority vote of two-thirds of both chambers to find new money. That means a mere third of members in either the House or Senate could block future tax hikes or the repeal of long-standing sales tax exemptions that mainly benefit businesses.

"Taking a citizen's hard-earned money should not be done lightly," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach. "You either stand with the people whose money the government takes or you stand with the government that takes it."

Gov. Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers say their goal is to prevent future tax hikes.

Under Republican rule for two decades, Florida has not increased any broad-based taxes. A series of motorist fee increases, passed in 2009, has been repealed.

If the Senate agrees with the House, the question will be on the November ballot. As a proposed amendment to the state Constitution, 60 percent of voters must approve it for it to become law.

Ten Democrats joined all Republicans voting to give House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes another political victory as he ponders a run for governor.

Some Democrats who voted against HB 7001 said its effect would be to protect for all time an estimated $5 billion in tax exemptions, mostly for corporate interests, that have been embedded in state law for decades.

Opponents said that repealing an exemption could require a two-thirds vote that will be all but impossible.

"It's going to be incredibly difficult to remove them," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who accused Republicans of election- year pandering and "bumper sticker politics."

But Democrats themselves were divided.

The 10 House Democrats who voted with Republicans to put the question to voters included Reps. Kionne McGhee of Miami, the incoming House Democratic leader.

"Politicians should not have the authority to raise taxes when they feel like it," McGhee said. "There should be a higher threshold."

But Democratic Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa, a candidate for attorney general, cited the state's per capita spending on schools and teacher salaries as areas where Florida lags behind other states because the imperative to keep taxes low has produced cash-starved programs.

"I don't see why we need to tie the hands of future Legislatures," argued Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, who voted no. "This is a shortsighted idea."

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, predicted the bill would get a positive vote in the chamber that he leads.

"We know that's a strong priority of the governor, and something the speaker has also made a priority, so I think you'll see that legislation move forward," Negron said.

Making it harder to raise taxes is a top priority of Scott, who's considering running for the U.S. Senate against three-term Democrat Bill Nelson.

Fifteen states already require supermajority votes to raise some or all taxes, including Arizona, California, Michigan and Oregon.

In Oklahoma, which has a 75 percent supermajority law for new taxes, lawmakers were forced to call a special session last month to fill a gap in the state budget.

Despite the Florida proposal's far-reaching implications, House members debated it for less than 15 minutes Thursday.

They spent much more time on another Republican bill (HB 25) that would revoke public employee union certifications if they fail to report annually how many members do and don't pay union dues in Florida, a so-called right-to-work state.

Democrats called it a "union-busting" tactic. Republicans call it much-needed transparency and it passed, 65 to 41.

Its fate in the Senate remains questionable.

The House also passed two health care bills to remove certificate-of-need requirements for hospitals (HB 27) and defining direct primary care agreements (HB 37), under which primary care doctors can be paid directly, making them exempt from state insurance regulations.

Hospitals now must obtain certificate-of-need approval from the Agency for Health Care Administration before adding services or expanding facilities.

The sponsor of HB 27, Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, said that's too restrictive and discourages business expansion.

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said certificate of need is a tool to ensure that hospital services are equally distributed and not clustered in affluent areas. She warned that medical facilities would "cherry pick" areas with richer patients who can afford care, siphoning them away from public hospitals.

Times/Herald staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.