BY JIM TURNER
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Floridians should expect the return of the popular “back-to-school” sales-tax holiday this August.
But state funding for Daytona International Speedway and a temporary tax break on gym memberships could be casualties when the House and Senate meet next week on their opposing packages to complete Gov. Rick Scott’s election-year tax cuts.
House budget leaders have expressed surprise that the raceway funding was included last week in the tax-cut package. But senators, advancing a number of proposals to help the ongoing speedway improvements, consider the issue an economic development driver.
Overall, the two chambers have taken different approaches to filling in the remaining $100 million in tax breaks to accompany a $400 million a year repeal of a 2009 rate hike on motor vehicle registration fees. Scott has already signed the registration fee reduction (SB 156) into law.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said last Friday the two chambers will “find a middle ground.” But when asked about the Senate’s inclusion of money for the speedway, Weatherford, who has been averse to government funding of stadiums, said, “that would probably be one that we probably would not be supportive of. But it’s early.”
The House wants a wide array of tax breaks, from sales-tax holidays on back-to-school items, energy-saving appliances, hurricane supplies and gym memberships, along with the elimination of the sales-taxes on the purchase of child car seats and bicycle helmets for kids, a temporary lifting of sales taxes on the purchase of cement mixers, a loan program for television production in the state, and a lessening of the sales taxes businesses pay for electricity.
The Senate has countered with a package that keeps the back-to-school holiday while reducing a tax on cable and phone services, lessening an insurance tax paid by bail bond services, and directing sales tax dollars to assist the $400 million ongoing “Daytona Rising” improvements at the raceway.
Melbourne Republican Ritch Workman, the architect of the House plan (HB 5601) that he has christened a “patchwork of awesomeness,” described the Senate’s self-declared “broad-based” proposal as “nichey stuff.”
“There is no battle royal brewing, but there (are) definitely going to be some strong negotiations,” Workman said on April 12, a day after the Senate replaced the bulk of the House patchwork. “We have to talk about what stays and what goes. We are very far apart and we need to get together.”
Leaders of the two chambers agree that they will provide up to $500 million in tax and fee cuts, and maybe go a little above that figure. But they are not looking to go a lot higher.
Despite philosophical concerns from Weatherford about stadium funding, Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron and Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, who has sponsored the speedway funding, believe the racetrack will survive the final cut.
“I’m very optimistic that the Speedway legislation will be passed and funded when we leave here in early May,” Negron, R-Stuart, said April 10 after the Senate package was crafted.
The Speedway funding has been approved as a standalone measure (SB 208) by the entire Senate, and the potential for the racetrack to get money has been tacked on to a separate proposal (SB 1216) that would require stadium sales-tax-subsidy proposals to be ranked by the Department of Economic Opportunity. Neither proposal has advanced in the House.
A similar funding proposal during the 2013 session died as lawmakers blocked requests to direct state sales-tax money into a number of stadium projects.
The Senate response does includes two measures that were in the House patchwork: a three-day period in August for back-to-school shoppers to buy items without paying sales taxes, projected to save Floridians $39.6 million, and a tax discount on pre-paid phone plans, expected to save phone users $1.4 million.
The Senate’s back-to-school proposal is similar to a House plan, except when it comes to computers.
The Senate plan limits the exemption to non-commercial computers that cost under $750. The House wants the state not to collect sale tax on the first $750 of the cost of computers and electronics, regardless of the overall cost.
Individual senators have said they would continue to seek several other proposals from the House package, including sales-tax holidays on energy-saving appliances and hurricane preparation gear, along with the program that would provide up to $20 million a year in loans for television production in Florida.
“I can understand that maybe gym memberships may not make it, but the other (sales-tax holidays) certainly are ones that have been proven in the past to be very successful, and I want to see them put back in,” Workman said.
Workman also defended the TV loan program, saying it makes Florida unique as efforts are being made to increase the incentives the state offers film and television production effort. And he said the state shouldn’t impose sales taxes on items it mandates, such as car seats and bicycle helmets for children.