FL legislative battles on the horizon with session soon

February 16, 2014 

With Florida Gov. Rick Scott boasting about his $74.2 billion state budget blueprint and the Legislature poised to open its 2014 session on March 4, political battle lines are coming into sharp focus. Some have strong roots in Manatee County, and others rank high in the community.

Here are just a few:

Tax, fee cuts

The governor proposes reducing fees and taxes some $500 million -- $400 million in lower auto tag fees and $100 million from a sales tax cut on commercial leases. The tag decrease helps motorists with an average savings of $25 annually -- by slashing the unfair increase imposed during the recession. The Manatee Chamber of Commerce notes that Florida is the only state that collects taxes on business rent, in direct opposition to the state's pledge to be business friendly. This should be corrected -- incrementally over several years until eliminated.

Both are welcome measures, even if politically motivated by a governor courting voters in an election year.

Red-light cameras

Once again, certain lawmakers want repeal of the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act with faulty arguments and twisted logic. They claim there are better options to boost safety at intersections and cite selected figures in a new state analysis of the cameras as further justification.

Plus, they object that local governments benefit from the fines and want to eliminate that -- but the state cut appears safe at this point.

But as Melissa Wandall of Manatee County pointed out in a Herald commentary Friday, one statistic overwhelms all others. The report stated that fatal collisions plummeted by 49 percent in 12 counties with red-light cameras -- which includes Manatee and the city of Bradenton. An estimated 18 lives were saved.

That information was buried in the report, commissioned by lawmakers opposed to the devices. It's tough to prove a point when your own study contradicts your political view, so obscuring the truth results.

Mark Wandall's widow fought for years to get the law enacted, and the region's legislators should not allow those hard efforts to be undone.

K-12 education funding

With the Manatee County school district still struggling financially, this is a vital issue. Scott proposed an additional $542 million for K-12 schools, an increase of $169 per pupil.

While that appears generous on the state's part, the lion's share of the funding will come from growth in local property tax revenue, not state coffers. Increasing property values will generate $375 million, and the governor proposes the Legislature keep the millage rate the same as last year. So local property owners get hit with a tax increase.

And with enrollment on the rise and compliance with state class-size limits, that extra money is a must.

School maintenance money

This thorny topic continues to aggravate public school advocates and should be a sore spot with taxpayers, who will keep showering charter schools with a greatly disproportionate amount of money for facility maintenance and repairs. This year, Scott proposes to spend $90.6 million on charters and $80 million on the K-12 system.

There are 350 charter schools in the state while Florida's 67 school districts maintain about 3,500 schools. The favoritism shown to nonprofit and for-profit companies with Public Education Capital Outlay dollars is outrageous.

School districts can levy property taxes for capital projects, as Manatee County does, but that shifts the burden onto local taxpayers since the state delivers public revenue to private entities instead of strained school systems.

In 2011 and 2012, charters raked in $55 million each year while school districts received nothing. Last year was hardly better, with charter schools sharing $91 million as districts with taxing authority split a measly $6 million.

We join the Manatee Chamber in calling for the region's legislative delegation to fight this totally inequitable state preference.

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