While a host of issues, such as education, the environment, transportation and healthcare, are up for debate when Florida’s Legislature convenes March 2, Southwest Florida lawmakers say they’re focused on two things: jobs and the budget.
With unemployment hovering at record levels near 12 percent statewide (and closer to 12.5 percent in Sarasota and Manatee), job creation is all the talk in Tallahassee. The budget may have a lower public profile, but when the state starts out about $3 billion in the hole, providing money for new programs is almost impossible. Help for businesses, in this case, may come almost as much from what legislators don’t pass as from what they do.
Keeping businesses running—especially the small businesses that make up Florida’s economic backbone—is one thing; finding solutions that help them develop and expand without undesirable unintended consequences is what makes it challenging.
“Anything we can do to cut out government regulation and make it easier for businesses to start up and operate, that’s what we’re going to do,” says Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. “The only thing you hear in Tallahassee now is jobs, jobs and more jobs. We’re working hard to get more people back to work.”
Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, and Speaker Pro Tem for the House, says that holds true in his chamber as well. “We’ve got to get more businesses coming here, so we need to make it easy for all businesses to operate,” he says. “Of course we have to protect the consumer, but we need to be very careful we are not overburdening the business.”
The pressure from the funding shortfall, created largely by the drop in sales tax collections as consumers cut back on their purchasing, can mean an increased push for new fees and taxes. Last year’s budget deficits led the Legislature to raise millions in new fees, such as higher costs for automobile tags. This year, with a fall election looming and businesses still struggling, legislative leaders say new taxes and fees won’t happen. Passing a balanced budget is the only thing legislators are legally required to do.
Drastically lowering, or at least slowing down, collection of one specific tax, however, is the top priority for almost all of the state's lawmakers. Legislative leaders and Gov. Charlie Crist say action on Florida’s unemployment compensation tax is one of the first things they’ll do in conjunction with the session’s start.
Without changes, the minimum tax goes from $8 to $100 for each employee, starting in April. The maximum will go from $378 to $459.
“That’s an increase of thousands of percent, and it’s coming at the very worst time for our business owners. It’s devastating,” Bennett says. It’s also, he says, a prime example of unintended consequences. When the formula for calculating the tax was developed years ago, no one imagined Florida would have such high unemployment for so long—a factor that drives the increase.
The tax formula is based on benefits paid to former workers over the last three years, and with unemployment so high, the state’s Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund is almost empty, which sets off more increases. Business leaders expected the tax would be somewhat larger, but nowhere near the levels they’re facing now.
On top of that, to keep the trust fund up to demand, the state has had to borrow about $300 million a month from the federal government; money that must be repaid—sometime in the future.
“Now we’re looking at more layoffs because businesses can’t afford to pay that tax increase. Then all those who get laid off will seek unemployment,” Bennett says. “Then we’ve got all that money borrowed from the federal government to pay the unemployment. Something’s got to give, but at this point, I’m not sure what.”
He and Reagan also talk about the need for expedited business permitting, something that would make it easier for new businesses to open. “Why should it take a year for a business owner to get all the permits?” Bennett asks, ticking off a list of agencies and governments that get involved in new business permitting. He’d like to see applicants submit only one application, then all the various agencies with a finger in the pie work off that, rather than have the applicant visit them all, filling out basically the same papers at each stop.
Property insurance reform is another hot topic for Bennett and Reagan. Both say the state needs to do more to get more insurance companies operating in Florida. “Florida over-regulates the insurance companies,” Reagan says. “We need to get away from that. The more competition we have from more companies here, the better prices will be for the consumer.”
Any money lost from cutting back existing fees or taxes, however, means an even greater budget hole that must be somehow plugged. “People say we should just cut the spending in the budget,” says Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota. “But we’ve already had years of budget cuts. The fat has been cut. When we start making budget cuts now, somebody’s going to feel the pain.”
He’s not a proponent of new taxes, and agrees the unemployment tax situation is an “emergency” that needs quick remedial action. But he also believes the state needs better plans or policies to ensure any new future fees or taxes do not inhibit business growth while protecting consumers and businesses.
Fitzgerald supports a sales tax holiday next year—they were eliminated this year as lawmakers struggled to balance the budget—on school supplies with the added exemption for computers and their accessories. He also backs a sales tax holiday on purchases of efficient Energy Star appliances.
Those special days when consumers could make purchases without paying Florida’s 6 percent sales tax brought thousands of shoppers to stores, retailers say, providing a tremendous bump in business.
Not only would his ideas help the businesses that sell the items, Fitzgerald says, but owning a computer helps students and job-seekers; replacing old appliances with more energy-efficient ones reduces demands for energy. Such breaks provide double benefits, he says, and that’s what the state needs to look for.
Finding ways to give companies tax credits and other incentives for using and developing “green” energy techniques is another concept Fitzgerald and Bennett say deserves consideration. “Most companies and businesses aren’t likely to do a lot of huge expenditures like that right now,” Fitzgerald says. “But now is the time for the state to set up the climate to encourage that kind of growth later.” ■
Betty Parker is a free-lance writer living in Fort Myers. She worked for The News-Press newspaper in Fort Myers for 32 years before leaving in 2007, most often covering environmental and political stories. She has covered the full legislative session in Tallahassee for more than 20 years.
Tips for accessing your elected officials.
Legislators want to know what issues and bills concern citizens, and citizens can let lawmakers know what they think about a bill or issue. If you want to ensure that your opinion or lobbying efforts get maximum results, consider the following tips:
Personal communication makes greater impact than a form letter, pre-printed card or mass e-mail. While e-mail is acceptable, nothing beats the impact of a personal letter. Whichever you prefer, don’t exceed a page, and if you send a letter, print so it can be easily read. Unsigned mail gets little attention.
Instead of just saying “I oppose/support House Bill 123,” explain what you like or don’t like about the bill. Things happen fast during session. A bill’s meaning can substantially change in just a few hours; in a day or two it can be completely re-written—but still have the same number. Explaining your position on a bill can help them determine how you might feel about revisions.
Be careful about being “creative.” One lobbying group in the past had its members send Florida lawmakers brick-size wooden blocks with a message on it. Delivery was a problem, storage was hard to find, and the annoyance factor was huge, to say the least.
Many associations visit the Capitol in groups during session, but if you’re going to seek tax breaks or talk about financial hardship, think twice about having a fleet of private jets descend on the tiny Tallahassee airport. It’s happened in the past, and sympathy was in short supply.
On the other hand, Southwest Florida lawmakers realize Tallahassee is hard for residents to visit, and they try hard to see a hometown visitor. Advance notice is essential; committees fill their days from early morning into the evening. A 10-minute visit is generous during session, so make your points quickly. And don’t ignore the staff; aides often do the background work on a bill and can be most helpful in getting information or access.
House members are generally limited to six bills each. Senators can file as many as they want. But a senator who wants to see a bill progress must find a House member who will sponsor it as one of his or her six. A bill needs a sponsor in each chamber for the best shot at success.
Filing a bill is easy. Getting it heard is a different matter, especially in the Senate where some members file 100-plus bills, sometimes just to say they filed it. If there’s a bill that interests you, ask the sponsor what’s being done to move it along. It may face unbeatable obstacles, or it simply might not be a priority of the sponsor.