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New voucher bill 'smacks of favoritism,' critics say

Katherine Fortes, a prekindergarten teacher, joins a protest Thursday in Miami against possible cuts in school funding.

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Katherine Fortes, a prekindergarten teacher, joins a protest Thursday in Miami against possible cuts in school funding.

For years, private-school vouchers have been criticized as a drain on public school funding and a violation of church-state separation. But a new voucher bill is coming under fire for a whole new reason:

Giving voucher providers special access to restricted state information.

Step Up for Students — a Tampa nonprofit that awarded vouchers to 33,000 low-income children statewide this year — would get a list of the 100 biggest payers of corporate income taxes to aid its fundraising.

"I want Step Up for Students to be able to fish where the fish are," said the bill sponsor, Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee.

But that information would continue to be off-limits to everybody else.

"It smacks of favoritism," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. "If they can get it, why can't we get it?"

Jon East, a spokesman for Step Up for Students, said the group was selected by the state to carry out the program, which is funded by corporations that get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions. Students must qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch to be eligible. Most recipients are minorities.

"This is a special program set up for a special reason," he said.

East said the organization doesn't know which companies pay corporate taxes, so finding contributors can be a "crapshoot."

He also pointed out that Gov. Rick Scott and some lawmakers are looking to cut or kill the corporate income tax, which makes up the lion's share of the program's funding pool. The legislative intent is to keep the program rolling in case that happens, he said.

"You can't consider this in a vacuum," he said.

Tax-credit vouchers have won bipartisan support in recent years, but longtime critics see problems with the bill.

Ron Meyer, an attorney for the state teachers union, said Democratic lawmakers tried several years ago to make public the names of corporations contributing to the program, but were shot down by Republicans who said the information was too important to disclose. With the new bill, he said, there's a "huge double standard."

"If anybody gets to peer behind the veil and see who gets to avoid paying corporate income taxes, everybody should get to peek behind the veil," Meyer said. "The news media, the public, have a right to know who these people are and how much they're deferring in corporate taxes."

Horner's response to that argument: "I'm not moved by it yet," he said, but added he could be persuaded.

The bill calls for the Department of Revenue to provide the list of taxpayers with the biggest tax liability to "scholarship-funding organizations" that serve 10,000 or more eligible students. There are only two such groups left in Florida — down from a handful several years ago — and Step Up for Students is the only one that big.

Companies that pay several other types of taxes, including insurance premium taxes and severance taxes on oil and gas production, also can contribute to the program in return for tax credits. The bill allows Step Up for Students to obtain lists of the biggest payers of those taxes, too.

No information besides names and addresses would be disclosed, East said. It would exclude the amount of tax liability.

The bill would make other changes that could allow the program to expand more rapidly. For instance, companies can now contribute up to 75 percent of their tax liability in return for tax credits. The bill would increase that to 100 percent.

The program is already growing fast.

Last year, the Legislature and then-Gov. Charlie Crist upped the total amount that corporations can give from $118 million to $140 million. They also put in place a mechanism that allows that cap to rise automatically.

Next year's cap is $175 million.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

New voucher bill 'smacks of favoritism,' critics say 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 10:16pm]
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