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As Tallahassee legislative session begins, business lobby is poised to pounce

TALLAHASSEE — The 2012 legislative session will be preoccupied with the once-a-decade chore of redistricting, but a broad spectrum of trade groups and lobbyists is still hoping to capitalize on its probusiness momentum from 2011 with an aggressive agenda.

Several powerful lobbying groups have laid out legislative wish lists in slick publications that tout their roles as "job creators" and call on lawmakers to fight the state's high rate of unemployment. With jobs still ranking as the top priority of Gov. Rick Scott, several of those wishes are likely to be granted.

When the nine-week legislative session opens Tuesday, lobbyists will be out in force to support business-friendly bills that range from education to taxes and business costs.

Last year's session was a field day for business interests. The ambitious arrival of a CEO-turned-governor who pledged to make jobs the No. 1 priority, combined with a veto-proof Republican majority in the House and Senate, worked in the business community's favor. Dozens of pro-employer bills passed, lowering corporate taxes, slashing regulations and reducing unemployment compensation benefits.

"Last year was an exceptional year for the business community and certainly for the Florida Chamber," said David Hart, vice president of governmental affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "It's rare to have 31 out of our 36 priorities pass both bodies and have 31 of them signed by the governor."

While the economy is still struggling and jobs remain the top priority, the political climate is a little different this year because of redistricting.

"We've been telling our members that you have to manage your expectations," said Jose Gonzalez, vice president of government affairs for the Associated Industries of Florida. "There's a small window of opportunity to pass legislation because the focus is on redistricting."

Still, the business lobby wields considerable influence in the Capitol, and it plans to flex its muscle in a year when all 160 legislative seats will be up for election.

Some of the top priorities:

E-Tax

Consumers who buy goods online often get a break on sales tax, thanks to a long-standing regulatory loophole that policymakers are looking to fill with new legislation.

Florida's business trade groups say it amounts to a $1.5 billion tax holiday for online companies that are using the advantage to the detriment of small-business owners with brick-and-mortar operations.

An "e-fairness" bill (HB 861), filed by Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, would put pressure on online retailers such as Amazon.com to collect sales tax on Internet purchases in Florida.

Business groups are emphasizing the word "fairness" when discussing the bill, hoping to counter critics that call it a new "tax." John Fleming, a spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation, said business owners are complaining that their stores have turned into "showrooms." Savvy consumers walk in to the stores, find an item they like, test it out, and then purchase the item later from an online retailer, free of sales tax.

Scott said he could support the measure if it is revenue-neutral, meaning that any new tax revenue brought in would have to be offset by some kind of tax cut, possibly a sales tax holiday.

"We've got to be fair," he said in an interview with the Times/Herald. "If we're going to do that … let's reduce another tax."

Cost of business

Employers are decrying rising costs and looking to business-friendly policymakers to help reduce their overhead. This year, the major "cost of business" issues involve unemployment compensation, workers' compensation and the minimum wage. In some cases, business owners are pitching legislation that would negatively affect employees, particularly low-income earners.

Unemployment compensation: Due to the state's high unemployment rate and a hefty debt load from a federal government loan, the minimum per-employee cost of unemployment compensation is set to rise from $72.10 to $171.70 per year, a net increase of $817 million. Employers are pushing back, asking policymakers to embrace measures that reduce the cost.

Workers' compensation: Insurance rates for workers' compensation are set to rise 8.9 percent, and business groups point to a regulatory loophole as a major contributor to the increase. The so-called "drug repackaging" loophole allows physicians to charge inflated reimbursement rates for medication bought wholesale, repackaged and then given a heftier price tag. Eliminating the loophole by statute, a proposal gaining steam in the Legislature, could save employers more than $60 million a year, said Gonzalez of Associated Industries.

Minimum wage: Florida's minimum wage increased from $7.31 to $7.67 on Jan. 1, an adjustment meant to help low-wage workers keep up with the rising cost of living. Some employers say the 4.9 percent increase will hurt their bottom lines and, in the case of tips-based workers like bartenders and servers, is too generous. The Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association have both campaigned against the continued automatic minimum wage increases and are hoping to amend the state's Constitution to keep the costs down. Worker advocacy groups are against any amendment that could harm minimum wage increases.

Insurance

Business groups are hoping to advance bills that reform the insurance industry and drive down costs. Florida's personal injury protection law is one of the main targets, due to a high level of fraud. PIP fraud accounts for about 40 percent of the state's insurance fraud.

The state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. is also being targeted by reform-minded business groups. A number of proposals seek to shore up Citizens' undercapitalized Hurricane Catastrophe Fund and prepare the insurer for the financial blow of a major hurricane. The proposals are unpopular because they would mean significant rate hikes on property owners.

As Tallahassee legislative session begins, business lobby is poised to pounce 01/07/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 9, 2012 1:57pm]
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