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Florida House committee muscles through measure to revive online travel tax bill

TALLAHASSEE — House leaders revived a bill Tuesday to shield online travel companies from being forced to pay additional tourism taxes on the hotel rooms they sell over the Internet.

The House Finance and Tax Committee voted 12-11 to kill the measure last week, then used a rules maneuver to keep it alive so legislators could attempt to reverse the vote this week. They succeeded — despite a move by Democrats to use a rules ploy of their own to stop the bill.

The proposal aims to clarify a now-ambiguous state law that has spawned a series of lawsuits by counties around the state and nation against online travel companies such as Expedia, Orbitz and Hotels.com.

The companies negotiate with hotel owners, paying wholesale rates to offer rooms online. They market the rooms, and sell them at a discount to online customers. But rather than remit taxes based on the rate charged customers, they pay sales tax and local tourism taxes based on the wholesale price and keep the difference — and they don't have to disclose what their fees and taxes are.

Under an amendment approved by an 18-6 vote on Tuesday, the travel companies would be required to disclose the portion of the bill that includes their tax. But critics of the measure said the language didn't do that.

"This is just outrageous," said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. "The bill could be great. The fact is, the language stinks."

The bill, by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, prohibits counties from requiring online travel companies to pay any additional tourism taxes on the wholesale cost of the hotel rooms — essentially exempting them from paying a tax on the retail cost.

Waldman chastised House leaders, including Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, sponsor of the bill, and committee Chairman Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando, for ramming through the bill and limiting debate. He said he was shown the amendment five minutes before the committee met.

"It's just incredible how you just want to shut off debate," Waldman said. "We need to do things better in the House of Representatives. You need to listen to people."

Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, predicted the bill will give an automatic advantage to out-of-state travel companies so in-state hotel companies will create their own wholesale markets.

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, said that is a good thing.

"This bill will open up a new industry," he said. "The effect, hopefully, will be to reduce taxes for people coming into our state."

Florida House committee muscles through measure to revive online travel tax bill 04/05/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 9:40pm]
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