Florida tax package draws fire for including tax dollars for charter schools
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A $102.4 million tax-cut package was approved late Thursday by the Florida House, despite objections from Democrats about a proposal that would spread voter-approved local tax dollars to charter schools.
The 69-44 vote sets the stage for negotiations between the House and Senate on a final tax package with one week left in the 60-day legislative session.
The House bill (HB 7123) includes a back-to-school tax “holiday” from Aug. 2 through Aug. 4. During that period, shoppers would be able to avoid paying sales taxes on clothing costing $60 or less, school supplies costing $15 or less and the first $1,000 of the price of personal computers.
Also, the bill calls for a similar tax holiday from May 31 through June 6 on hurricane-preparation supplies and for a reduction in a sales tax on commercial leases.
The proposal to reduce the lease tax rate from 5.7 percent to 5.35 percent would account for $47.9 million of the tax cuts during the fiscal year that starts July 1. Business groups have long lobbied to reduce the tax.
The bill also would amend guidelines for hospitals to qualify for a charitable tax exemption, give some flexibility to the Department of Revenue when reviewing property assessment rolls in counties affected by natural disasters, and most controversially, include charter schools in the distribution of increased property-tax money raised through local referendums.
Such referendums have been approved in about 20 counties. Critics of the House bill said at least some local referendums were designed to help traditional public schools, not charter schools.
House Ways & Means Chairman Bryan Avila, a Miami Springs Republican sponsoring the bill, said the proposal addresses a 2017 court ruling that required Indian River County to include charter schools in money raised from a local referendum. Also, he pointed to recently filed litigation about a Palm Beach County referendum and language in a Miami-Dade referendum.
“You have certain counties that have completely excluded charter schools, you have some that left it so vague that no one really knows,” Avila said. “There’s a multiple set of districts that have really done several different things and have provided no uniformity. And so, what we’re doing with this language is provide that clarity.”
But Democrats said the lawsuit in Indian River County was over the amounts being distributed, as the referendum included charter schools. Also, they said the proposal in Palm Beach County was directed at raising money for traditional public schools.
Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, said the teachers’ union in Miami-Dade County supported that county’s referendum, which was put forward to make up for a lack of money coming from the state for teachers in traditional public schools.
“Tallahassee failed us. So, we took matters into our own hands at the local level,” Joseph said. “And make no mistake about it. Charter schools were not part of that equation.”
The Republican-dominated House rejected a proposal that would have required audits related to how charter schools use money raised through referendums. Opponents of the audit proposal indicated it would be a burden on charter-school management and was not similarly required of traditional public schools.
With the legislative session ending May 3 and budget negotiations ongoing, the Senate has advanced several potential tax-cut proposals in individual bills. Along with sales-tax holidays, those proposals include ideas such as offering a tax exemption on baby and adult diapers (SB 60).
A proposal (SB 1112) by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, includes a long-discussed idea about collecting sales taxes on purchases made over the internet from out-of-state retailers. The additional revenue generated from the online sales would be offset by such things as a reduction in the commercial lease-tax rate from 5.7 percent to 4.2 percent.
Amid the variety of proposals, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said this week there will tax holidays on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies.
“Beyond, that we have negotiations that need to occur,” Bradley said.
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