State Politics

Fla. voucher expansion bill advancing

TALLAHASSEE — Sellers of beer, wine and liquor would be added to the list of businesses that can get tax credits for donating to a private school program for low-income children as part of a bill that also increases the value of the vouchers.

The measure that easily cleared the Senate Finance and Tax Committee on Tuesday pits a couple old adversaries: former Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

The union was part of a lawsuit that overturned a voucher program Bush started for students from what the state deemed to be failing public schools. The Florida Supreme Court struck down the “opportunity scholarships” that allowed those students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, argued the state would save money by expanding the Tax Credit Scholarship Program because it would still pay less than what it costs to send children to public school.

Union lobbyist Lynda Russell told the committee this isn’t the time, with the state in a financial squeeze, to take more money out of public education.

They also disagreed over the meaning of a University of Florida study that found voucher students are doing no better nor worse than those in public schools.

Russell said that disputes claims that voucher students are doing better. Levesque said keeping up with the average amounts to an improvement for “the poorest of the poor and the lowest-performing students.”

The voucher program is supported by credits businesses can get against their corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes for every dollar they donate to the program.

The bill (SB 2126) would add credits for alcoholic beverage and gas and oil severance taxes as well as a form of sales tax paid by some businesses.

The bill also would raise a $118 million cap on the program to $140 million during the budget year starting July 1 and allow for automatic increases after that if the program raises at least 90 percent of the capped amount in a given year.

For the next school year, the bill would increase the vouchers, currently worth $3,950, by about $140 to equal 60 percent of what it costs to send a student to public school. It eventually would grow to 80 percent, or at least about $5,500, in the future.

The committee approved the bill 4-1 with only Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg opposed. The only other Democrat on the panel, Sen. Jeremy Ring of Margate, voted for it.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has 18 co-sponsors including two other Democrats, Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee and Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando.

With Ring, that should give the measure at least 20 votes, just one short of passing in the Senate. A similar bill (HB 1099) in the House has not yet had a committee hearing, but that chamber has been voucher-friendly in the past.

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