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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Poll: Floridians support taxes on cigs and some services



A bi-partisan alliance of former state leaders and policy advocates released a Mason Dixon poll Wednesday that shows overwhelming public support for an increase in the cigarette tax -- 71 percent-- but elimination of some sales tax exemptions on services -- 56 percent -- and imposition of a fee on off-brand cigarettes -- 78 percent.

The poll also shows that of the 625 registered voters surveyed last week, 70 percent support legislative approval of the governor's compact with the Seminole Tribe and 69 percent want state government to steer contracts to Florida firms.

The group, the Florida Alliance for Concerned Taxpayers, formed to persuade lawmakers that it's time to raise some taxes, revise some policies, and shift the direction of Florida's economic freefall.

"After decades of tax cuts, of spending reductions and performance audits, Florida has succeeded in turning itself into probably the most efficient state government in the country in terms of per capita cost to the taxpayers,'' said Virginia Wetherell, former secretary of the Department of Environmental Regulation.

"Yet we believe that our state now is at a tipping point...Lawmakers need to change the mantra that they've had for years from no-new-taxes to a new promise to get the highest value they can possibly get for every taxpayer dollar.''

Joining Wetherell was Tom Herndon, former chief of staff to Govs. Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham and a former revenue chief and head of the Department of Revenue, Lester Abberger, a long-time environmental advocate and Lena Juarez a Republican strategist.

The group said it is self-supported but it has a web site and is hoping to expand and accept contributions. It commissioned the poll and recommended a seven point plan for what it called smarter spending. From the group's press release:

1. Pass tobacco taxes for health care. The proposed tobacco taxes – assessing $1 a pack on cigarette sales and closing a loophole that allows non-participating manufacturers to avoid paying their fair share – together raise nearly $1 billion annually for health care.   Of those polled, 71% say they support raising Florida’s tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack, and 78% support making off-brand tobacco companies (non-participating manufacturers) reimburse the State for the health care costs paid by taxpayers associated with their products. In both cases, that support grows if the revenues are earmarked for health care.

2. Embrace Seminole Compact for education.  The Seminole Compact offers more than $288 million this year and a minimum of $2.5 billion over the life of the Compact for Florida’s schools.  FACT believes the Compact offers ready money for schools with no impact on taxpayers. Seventy percent of those polled say they support the Seminole Compact as negotiated by Gov. Charlie Crist.

3.  Review sales tax exemptions. Florida could raise $560 million in new revenues by eliminating some of the state’s bizarre sales tax exemptions and levying new taxes on nonessential services. Today, items exempt from sales taxes include bottled water, ostrich feed, charter-fishing trips, Super Bowl tickets and stadium skyboxes. Eliminating such exemptions could generate $224 million. Non-essential services also could easily be taxed, including valet parking, photo finishing, pet grooming, fitness club memberships and lawn & landscaping services.  A clear majority of those polled (56%) support a review of sales tax exemptions to see if they are still justified.

4.  Shift spending from deep-end to front-end services. Proposals in play this session would shift existing dollars from jails to community mental health programs and from emergency room care to primary care delivered through community health centers.  These shifts produce big returns on investment without new dollars.  According to studies, the primary care shift would save $700 million a year and produce better health outcomes, while the mental health shift would avoid $100 million in new prison construction costs and produce a more humane mental health system.  Sixty-one percent of those polled say the Legislature should move money in the current budget to make sure Floridians have access to basic, primary health care.

5.  Spend money with Florida firms.  Florida government could generate its own economic stimulus by directing the millions of dollars that state government contracts out annually to Florida firms. When Florida sends money out of the state, whether for online purchases or outsourced contracts, Floridians lose jobs. An analysis by the Washington Economics Group found that a “buy local” strategy could increased the total economic impact of Florida projects by 10 to 15 percent – a number that could rise even higher for administrative and consulting functions. To boost Florida’s economy, 69 percent said state government should commit to directing state contracts to Florida firms when prudent, rather than out-of-state firms.

6.  Stop mandates on local governments.  While forcing property tax reductions, state government continues to force local taxpayers to pick up the cost of state policies and mandates.  For example, the Legislature recently heaped additional required pension benefits on local taxpayers.  Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said state government should not force cities to require extra benefits for public safety employee pensions, while another 26% were not sure.

7.  Draw down more federal matching funds.  A recent analysis reveals that Florida leaves an estimated $6 billion of federal dollars on the table each year by failing to smartly apply state spending to draw down federal matching funds.  Currently, Florida ranks 45th among the states in per capita federal grants funding.  FACT endorses steps to promote more active coordination between the executive and legislative branches to draw down federal dollars, beginning with the current budget process.

“It’s a critical time for Florida to embrace better public policy, smarter spending and restrained, responsible taxation,” Herndon said.  “Florida already has among the leanest governments in the nation.  It’s time to make sure our spending is also among the smartes

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 7:35pm]


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