Florida Legislature approves more than $400 million in tax cuts

TALLAHASSEE -- It is just over half the amount he wanted in tax cuts this year, still Gov. Rick Scott celebrated a $400 million-plus tax plan that sailed through the Florida Legislature on Monday morning that will cut sales taxes on back-to-school shopping and lower cell phone bills, among other items.

"Giving Floridians back more of the money they earn in tax cuts is the best thing we can do to keep Florida's economy growing," Scott said in previewing his expected approval of the bill.

Going into his final term, Scott pitched a $700 million tax cut package that included slashing the state's 6.65 percent communication tax charged on most cell phone and cable television bills as its centerpiece. Scott wanted a cut of $40 per year on a bill of $100. Instead, the Legislature gave him a $20.76 annual cut that begins in July.

The Legislature also gave Scott less permanency in the wide-ranging tax cut package. Only about $253 million of the tax cuts are permanent, meaning the remaining amount will have to be approved by the Legislature again in 2016 to continue.

The tax cut plan passed Monday gives back-to-school shoppers 10 days of sales tax free shopping starting Aug. 7, and eliminates all sales taxes on college textbooks for one year.

"This bill is broad based tax relief, it touches so many of our constituents," State Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, said just before the bill passed 34-2.

It also reaches plenty of special interest groups. Taxes would be slashed for expensive boat and yacht repairs, irrigation equipment, jet fuel for aviation schools and gun club memberships among them.

That didn't sit well with some Democrats. Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said some of the cuts are too focused on the wealthy and not on the "little guy." She centered her argument on a provision that would cap the tax on a repair bill for a yacht at $60,000. That she said would help millionaires, but do nothing for the middle and lower income residents of the state.

"We need to look at how these tax cuts impact people at the high end, as well as at the low end," said Thompson, who was one of only two Senators to vote against the package.

But Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, defended the tax cuts on boat repairs. He said he included the tax cut in the bill as a job stimulator. He said by cutting those taxes, those repairs will be done in Florida, versus someone shipping their boat to another state for the repairs.

"It's not about saving millionaires money, it's about getting jobs for people who aren't millionaires," he said. "It's about building up an industry in Florida to do that kind of work."

While some Democrats during debate on the tax cuts lamented that the money should have gone to helping expand health care access for low income residents or other state priorities, few voted against the bill. After just two Democrats in the Senate opposed the bill, the package cleared the House on a 91-2 vote. Though after the vote, State Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, one of the listed no votes had his vote changed after he said another member, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, inadvertently hit the no button on his desk when he was not at his desk during the vote.

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, the chairman of the Finance and Tax Committee in the House, said the fact that the tax package won support in both the House and the Senate and won most Democrats was a relief given how contentious the Legislature has been over the last several months.

"In a session that has had its share of lumps and bumps, it's good to end on a high note," said Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

-- Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.