TALLAHASSEE — In a Legislature averse to raising taxes this election year, one item might not be off limits: bottled water. The state would tax the product for the first time under legislation given initial approval Wednesday by a Senate committee.
The bill would impose a 6 percent tax on all bottled water and direct the revenue to programs that clean up discarded plastic bottles. It is expected to generate $42 million next year.
"It's a surcharge to save the environment," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who said water company stocks are "through the roof."
The legislation (SB 152) passed 7-1 in the Senate Commerce Committee and must be considered by two more committees before it hits the Senate floor. The only no vote was Republican Sen. Victor Crist of Tampa. An identical House version has not received a committee hearing.
Last year, a House committee rejected a similar bottled water tax. In his proposed budget a year ago, Gov. Charlie Crist asked for a 6-cents-a-gallon tax on all water pumped from the ground and used for commercial purposes. That effort also failed.
Critics in the beverage industry say the tax is punitive and that it could lead to job losses in the industry. Martha Harbin, a lobbyist with the Florida Beverage Association, noted that companies are working on biodegradable containers and are pouring money into recycling awareness campaigns.
"In terms of the environmental impact, it's far, far less than many sectors of the economy," she said.
Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, said the new tax would treat bottled water just like soda, which is also taxed at the 6 percent rate.
"It's about personal consumption, water as a refreshment," he said. "This thing has created a real hardship as far as the cleanup of the water industry."
But he suggested exempting large containers to spare people who use bottled water as their normal drinking supply.
Supporters of the tax say water companies make high profits by simply repackaging spring water or tap water and then leaving cleanup costs to the public.
"The cost of cleaning up that stuff and dealing with the bottles down the line is (passed on) to the taxpayer," said Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen.
Water suppliers point out that they pay a premium on water from municipal systems, in addition to building plants that filter the water and add flavoring.
"Don't think we get it for free," said Lane Stephens, who lobbies for Nestle Waters North America. "It costs a lot of money to put it in that bottle."
Democratic Sen. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg disputed the idea that the new tax would lead to job losses: "I think a lot people, if they're in a 7-Eleven or wherever and buying a bottle of water, they probably don't know whether it's taxed or not."