State Politics

Senate talks tough about new taxes

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Senate budget writers sent a message to the House and governor Wednesday: It’s time to start talking about new taxes.

They are prepared to increase cigarette taxes, eliminate sales tax exemptions, and even ask voters to raise the state sales tax a penny to pay for public education.

The Senate is so determined to get new money, it released its education budget Wednesday dependent on revenue from a new gambling agreement with the Seminole tribe and a promise of revenues from tax increases.

“I will not stand for any more reductions to classroom funding,’’ Senate President Jeff Atwater told activists from the League of Women Voters this week. He said he has told Senate leaders that when it comes to more cuts to schools: “You can’t go there again.’’

While the final list of Senate revenue increases is far from final, here’s what they’re discussing behind the scenes to make up the $3 billion budget deficit:

n $200 million in fee increases on everything from fishing shore-line licenses to motor-vehicle tags.

n $250 million in sales-tax exemption eliminations.

n $500 million to $700 million in new gambling-tax money from the first year of the Seminole Indian gaming compact and the plan to give electronic slot machine games to horse and dog tracks around the state. The proposal would raise $1 billion in the first full year.

n $700 million to $870 million from cigarette taxes.

n $200 million in increased beer-distributor taxes that could raise the cost of a six-pack by about 5 cents.

n $64 million from raising college tuition.

n Proposing a constitutional amendment that would give schools flexibility on class size requirements and raise the sales tax a penny on a ballot measure as early as this fall.

The Senate Pre-K-12 budget includes $208 million in revenue from the Seminole gaming compact while its higher education budget includes $80 million from the gambling money. Senate leaders said they still expect massive cuts in other parts of the budget but their goal is to draw down every penny in federal stimulus money they can get, and keep Florida attractive to new residents and companies.

While Gov. Charlie Crist is supportive of the $1 billion Senate gambling plan, he is not open to tax increases. “I’m certainly not warm and fuzzy about it,’’ he said this week. “This is not a time to take more from our fellow Floridians.’’

The House’s approach to the budget has been markedly different. A House committee has proposed rolling back gaming on Seminole Tribe reservations by taking away their blackjack games, and House leaders have no plans to rely on new gambling revenue or tax increases in its first proposed budget.

“The quick thing to do is just simply raise revenue,’’ said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, the Fort Lauderdale Republican who chairs the Finance and Tax Council. She is willing to resist as long as it takes, even if it sends lawmakers into an overtime session past May 1.

“If you come to me and say, ‘Do you want to have a longer session or do you want to raise taxes?’ I’ll take the longer session,’’ she said.

The Senate, however, is prepared to duke it out.

“Our job is to make courageous decisions now to prevent the pain index and the damage that can be done from excessive cuts and loss in public services and quality of life,’’ said Sen. Thad Altman, chairman of the Senate Finance and Tax Committee. “When the pain index gets to a point where the problems become much more complicated, much more acute, they’re actually much more expensive to fix.’’

Next week, Altman’s committee will begin the debate over which tax exemptions to eliminate.

The Senate is expected to pass a $1 per pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax, which is now at 34 cents per pack and is one of the lowest in the nation. Senate committees are also planning to discuss closing corporate income tax loopholes and removing sales tax exemptions on bottled water, charter fishing boats, Super Bowl tickets and other “luxury” items.

On Thursday, Senate committees will hear proposals to raise several fees.

Over in the House, taxes have always been a dirty word, where it is a Republican rite of passage to sign Grover Norquist’s no taxes pledge.

Bogdanoff and other leaders view the budget crisis as an opportunity to streamline state government, eliminating duplicate services and agencies.

Despite her stance, Bogdanoff thinks a few sales tax exemptions, such as the one on bottled water, will be repealed. The $43 million it would raise, however, will barely touch the deficit.

House Speaker Larry Cretul has been making the same anti-tax case to lobbyists who visit him daily, seeking a way to stave off cuts to schools, hospitals and other services.

Andy Ford, president of the teachers union, urged Cretul to support a temporary sales tax increase, 1 cent for three years, to cover the shortfall in education funding caused by dropping property values. Statewide, values are down about 12 percent, or $219 billion, meaning schools will collect nearly $1 billion less next year and a 1 cent increase will raise $2.9 billion annually.

“There is no one in the House who looks forward to making any further cuts to education,’’ Cretul told him. “Whatever we do will have minimal impact. Minimal.”