Back-to-school tax break tops list signed by Scott

Gov. Scott OK's back-to-school sales tax holiday, other breaks.
Gov. Scott OK’s back-to-school sales tax holiday, other breaks.

A back-to-school sales tax holiday and breaks for manufacturers and a host of other industries were included in legislation signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Rick Scott.

Clothing, shoes and backpacks costing $60 or less will be exempt from the state’s 6 percent sales tax the weekend of Aug. 5-7, while school supplies costing $15 or less also will be tax-free.

The back-to-school break amounts to $28.7 million of the $129 million tax-break package, with the biggest savings under the bill (HB 7099) going to manufacturers. They’ll get to keep $73.1 million they would have been paid in taxes on equipment purchases.

“We have made the decision in Florida that we can grow our economy, meet the needs of our state and care for the vulnerable not by having more taxes, but by having more taxpayers,” said House Finance and Tax Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. “These tax cuts welcome new families, businesses, and visitors to our state each day.”

Other reductions included in the package affect taxes paid on aviation fuel, asphalt, pear cider, fruit and vegetable packing houses and how the state levy on some tobacco products is calculated.

The bill signed by Scott was a central part of just over $400 million in tax breaks approved by lawmakers this year. The biggest share of the reduction, however, will go to property taxpayers, with lawmakers having agreed to reduce taxes used to finance schools.

That tax cut was set in motion when Scott last month signed the state’s $82 billion budget for the year beginning July 1.

Scott’s fellow Republicans in the Legislature sharply scaled back a $1 billion tax-cut plan he sought, and also ignored his pitch for $250 million in economic incentives.

The governor campaigned vigorously for the high-priced package, running television ads, conducting a bus tour in January, and soliciting letters of support from dozens of city and county officials for the tax breaks and economic incentives that he cast as a blueprint for sparking the Florida economy and creating more jobs.

Lawmakers, however, were uneasy about the potential long-term impact of Scott’s plans on Florida’s financing. They also were skeptical of his approach.

Scott’s $1 billion cuts were aimed almost exclusively at businesses. His bid for another $250 million in economic incentives also was dismissed by state lawmakers wary of handing the governor cash he could use to pick and choose companies he might woo to the state.

Instead, lawmakers tipped the tax-break proposal more toward consumers — especially with the move reducing property taxes.

The almost 6 percent reduction in the property tax for public schools should mean a tax savings of $58 a year to the owner of a $250,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption.

“By reducing local millage rates we are ensuring that state tax dollars, rather than local property taxes, cover a larger share of the unprecedented K-12 per-student funding allocated this year in our budget,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

Florida House ready to OK guns on campus and open carry

Gun bills poised for final votes in House
Gun bills poised for final votes in House

A measure allowing Florida’s 1.4 million concealed weapons permit holders to carry their guns onto college campuses appears set for a final House vote.

Another measure that would let permit holders openly display their holstered weapons on streets, public buildings and many other places also was teed up — with both bills set for final House votes Wednesday.

But the controversial legislation faces an uncertain future in the Florida Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, hasn’t scheduled either measure for a hearing.

The campus carry measure (CS/HB 4001) has been condemned by college and university administrators, many student groups, and campus police chiefs.

But House sponsor Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, said people shouldn’t have their Second Amendment rights limited when they step onto a campus.

“I think law-abiding citizens who have gone through the necessary background checks should be able to defend themselves,” Steube said.

House Democrats fought the measure Tuesday, echoing criticisms that coursed through earlier committee hearings on the bill.

They questioned the soundness of adding weapons to campuses where young people, alcohol and wide-ranging emotions fuel a volatile mix.

The open carry legislation sparked a similar divide. But supporters said it was time for Florida to join the other 45 states that allow some form of open carry.

“There is not a single piece of credible evidence…that supports open carry legislation increases gun violence,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, sponsor of the bill (CS/HB 163).

Packing heat: Open carry headed toward House floor amid questions about why it’s needed

Open carry clears a House committee
Open carry clears a House committee

More than 1.4 million Floridians with concealed weapons permits could openly carry their guns under legislation that moved forward Thursday in the House, amid emotional testimony from both sides.

The Florida Sheriffs Association opposes the legislation. But a handful of sheriffs broke with the group and testified in support of the bill (CS/HB 163) before the Judiciary Committee.

The panel approved the measure 12-4, setting the stage for a full House vote.  Similar legislation, however, likely faces a tougher challenge in the Florida Senate.

The National Rifle Association earlier pushed for the bill claiming that Floridians with weapons permits were being arrested for accidently exposing a firearm.

But Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, was beaten back by the Republican-controlled panel when he proposed a sheriffs’ backed alternative that prohibited such arrests.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, sponsor of the bill, said he wasn’t interested in the change.

“I truly want to make it the right of Floridians to openly carry,” said Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, sponsor of the House measure. His father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is sponsoring the Senate version.

“This is not just a fix,” Rep. Gaetz said. “I have broader goals.”

Still, other supporters, including the NRA and Florida Carry, continued to cite examples of Floridians arrested under the current law – although they provided few specifics.

A case frequently cited involved Dale Norman of Fort Pierce, arrested in 2012 for what a Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling described as “ walking on the sidewalk with the firearm clearly visible on the outside of his clothing.”

But the ruling cited “no credible evidence” that Norman sought to properly conceal the weapon, defying the claim by gun advocates that he was subject to overzealous policing.

Norman’s conviction for violating the state’s concealed weapon’s law was upheld by the Fourth DCA.

House’s $1 billion tax cut plan similar but not Gov. Rick Scott’s; Speaker says still ‘long way to go’

House puts $1 billion tax cut package in play that is similar -- but different -- from Gov. Rick Scott's
House puts $1 billion tax cut package in play that is similar — but different — from Gov. Rick Scott’s

The Florida House unveiled a $1 billion tax-cut package Wednesday — similar in size to what Gov. Rick Scott wants, but a lot less permanent.

The House steers clear of the centerpiece of the Republican governor’s plan — a $770 million reduction in the corporate income tax paid by manufacturers and retailers.

Instead, House Finance and Tax Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, packaged together a host of one-time reductions, including four different sales tax holidays.

But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, also said that the initiative marked just the beginning of discussions on a tax-cut plan this election-year session. Crisafulli said there remains a “long way to go,” and some form of big corporate income tax cut is likely still to be discussed.

The House does go along with Scott’s proposed permanent elimination of the sales tax on equipment purchases by manufacturers. Scott’s call for cutting 1 percent from the 6 percent sales tax paid on commercial leases also was embraced by the House.

The Senate hasn’t said much so far about $1 billion in tax breaks. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has set aside $250 million for tax breaks in the chamber’s budgeting. But the legislative session’s closing weeks will likely include wheeling-and-dealing toward that $1 billion benchmark sought by Scott.

A coalition of business groups last week began airing 30-second TV spots touting the business rent tax cut on the heels of Scott’s own $1 million TV ad buy – through his Let’s Get to Work spending committee – that promoted the tax breaks statewide as he barnstormed several cities, including Boca Raton, on a bus tour.

The Cut My Rent 1 Percent coalition includes the National Federation of Independent Business, the Florida Retail Federation, Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce and others.


Over opposition from sheriffs, open-carry gun bill squeaks through House panel

Open carry squeaks through a House committee
Open carry squeaks through a House committee

Legislation that would allow concealed weapons holders to openly carry guns in Florida narrowly cleared a House committee Wednesday, after changes aimed at resolving concerns raised earlier by business groups.

The Justice Appropriations Subcommittee approved the measure 7-6,  with even two usually gun-friendly Republicans against the bill (CS/HB 163) by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. Several lawmakers cited the Florida Sheriffs Association’s opposition to the proposal as guiding their decision.

“We don’t need full-blown open carry. It’s not good for Florida,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who pointed out that 47 of the state’s 67 sheriffs had agreed to fight the legislation.

The open-carry measure would allow the more than 1.4 million Floridians with concealed weapons permits to walk the streets with handguns displayed – not tucked into a purse, under a jacket or in a pocket.

Supporters say it will enhance public safety. They also said it is merely an extension of constitutional firearms protections.

Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, acknowledged that reaction to the legislation was polarizing. But in supporting the bill, Spano said he would vote, “on the side of the constitution.”

The action came after Gaetz also endorsed amendments to the bill that underscored the right of property owners to prohibit guns from being openly carried in their bars, restaurants and other public buildings. Another change added was aimed at assuring that guns couldn’t be displayed recklessly.

Although 43 states now allow open-carry, opponents argued it would hurt Florida’s lucrative tourist industry, confuse law enforcement in tense situations, and heighten the risk of violence for Floridians. Gualtieri also said that just because other states had embraced open-carry, that didn’t make it right for Florida.

“Montana is not Miami,” Gualtieri said.

Marijuana use OK’d for terminally ill Floridians under bill

Introduction of a form of medical marijuana in Florida has been plagued by delays
Introduction of a form of medical marijuana in Florida has been plagued by delays

A measure that would allow terminally ill Floridians to use marijuana cleared a House panel Tuesday, but includes a divisive provision that revamps last year’s medical pot law.

Full-strength marijuana limited to a non-smoking form would be available to patients with a year or less to live under the proposal (HB 307) by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.

A similar bill (SB 460) is scheduled to go before the Senate Health Policy Committee this afternoon.

The legislation looks to build on a measure dubbed “right to try” and that was signed into law in June by Scott.

The new law allows doctors to prescribe treatments to the terminally ill that are being used in clinical trials but not yet on pharmacy shelves. Under the House measure, marijuana would be added to those possible treatments.

The proposal grows out of frustration among lawmakers with delays in the state’s introduction of Charlotte’s Web, the non-euphoric form of marijuana approved in 2014 by the Legislature but still not available to the cancer and epilepsy patients it was intended to help.

That law limited to five plant nurseries the number of growing and dispensing organizations around the state.

But an amendment to Tuesday’s marijuana bill would boost that number to 20 nurseries. Qualifying nurseries have to be big — with at least 400,000 plants under cultivation — and the state’s Department of Health has been struggling to finalize the selection of nurseries.

Charlotte’s Web was supposed to be available to patients Jan. 1.

But after delays caused by legal challenges, Health Department officials are still sorting through thousands of pages of information submitted by 28 nurseries who have applied across Florida to become one of the five licensees with exclusive rights to sell the medical marijuana.

Gaetz said his bill could be complicated by the amendment by Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, that changes the number of  eligible nurseries.

But he said the focus remained on getting a product to patients — this time, he said, it would be for those whose projected lifespan is so limited they are “not buying green bananas.”

“We have to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle and evaluate the impact of Rep. Bracy’s amendment,” Gaetz said. “And determine what impact that would have specifically on the existing licensure process. It is our expectation that very soon, this week or next week, licenses will be issued. We don’t want that disrupted in any way.”