Monday, December 18, 2017
Politics

Senate wants a session break — to wait for revenues and avoid cuts

TALLAHASSEE — With updated revenue numbers that offered no relief from deep budget cuts, a bipartisan majority of the Florida Senate wants to cut short the regular session in February and come back later in the spring when lawmakers hope to have a rosier revenue forecast that will avoid some of the $2 billion in projected cuts.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and incoming Democratic Leader Chris Smith have circulated a petition to present to the Senate president, and have gathered a majority of Senate signatures for the effort in the face of strong resistance from the House, Gaetz told the Times/Herald.

Gaetz wants to avoid a special session so is calling for a legislative "hiatus" in February that would allow lawmakers to pause their work and come back to finish within the 60-day time limit. Lawmakers started their session early this year in time to handle the once-a-decade redistricting of legislative and congressional maps and are scheduled to adjourn by March 9.

The delay also serves a second purpose: it allows lawmakers to buy time if the Florida Supreme Court rejects all or part of their redistricting maps. Gaetz said legislators could come back within the delayed session, make the fixes quickly and then send any "repairs" back to the court.

"My view and the view of the majority of the Senate is that we ought to measure twice and cut once,'' Gaetz said. The Niceville Republican said that the forecast from state economists on Thursday, which showed a slower than expected increase in revenues that could result in a $2 billion budget gap, don't take into account sales tax revenues from late December and January which are "typically a very strong period."

But the push by the Senate to delay the budget has sparked a new battle with the House, whose Republican leadership angered senators when they allowed dozens of top priority Senate bills to die in the final hours of last year's session.

House Speaker Dean Cannon said Thursday, however, that he saw no reason to delay a budget. State economist said the state would collect $26 million more than anticipated in the 202-13 budget but the gap will remain close to $2 billion.

"We have no indication there is going to be any reasonably significant difference in the same estimate we've been working off of for months, so I don't think that indicates any reason to not get to work on the budget and get it done on time,'' Cannon said. He wants to finish on time, he said, to send "the right sign to the business community and 18 million Floridians."

Republican Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera told the Times/Herald that economists are not scheduled to meet in conference again to update the revenue numbers, he said, "and it's a little presumptuous to call one. There is no indication the numbers in March would be better than January."

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich said Friday she supports a delay to help ensure the state will be able to "use all the revenue we have." If lawmakers complete the budget early and new revenue comes in before the new budget year on July 1, she said, "I have no confidence that the money will go into education and health care issues.

Rich is among several senators who believe it's time for lawmakers, who have cut programs, jobs and services from the state budget for the past five years — including $4.65 billion last year — to take a serious look at alternatives.

"We've got almost six months from now to the beginning of the fiscal year, so what's the rush,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. "If things are getting better, the less we've got to cut and I've already said I'm not going to support the cuts we did last year."

Latvala instead wants legislators to pass two bills designed to recover taxes he believes the state is owed by online retailers and online travel companies. Online travel companies such as Orbitz and Expedia have been fighting local governments for years over whether they owe tourist taxes on the full price of the rooms they sell to customers. Bills have been filed to clarify the law, some to favor the online companies while others would favor local governments, but none have passed.

"Most people have been putting the money they owe the state in escrow until they win or lose the case,'' he said. "Everybody says we've got one of the strongest laws in the country. That's why they want to change the law. ... That's revenue we're supposed to be getting that people are keeping us from getting."

Gov. Rick Scott has indicated that he will not support collecting any additional taxes and would support the online sales tax bill only if the cuts are offset somewhere else.

Latvala suggested, however, that Scott will have to compromise. "If the governor wants the budget, it's a collaborative process,'' he said. "If enough people say enough's enough; we're not going to pit schools against hospitals. We cut hospitals 12.5 percent last year and we're not going to cut them another 18 percent this year. That's a lot of jobs. So I'm not sure that's the solution if we could supplement the budget in some fashion."

"I don't think the internet tax is a new tax. It's called a sales and use tax so people are supposed to pay it when they buy things over the Internet,'' he said. "They just don't and we don't have a collection mechanism. So we're not instilling a new tax. We're just enforcing existing law."

Cannon also repeated his prediction that the online sales tax proposal won't happen this year.

"With unemployment at 10 percent and an already strained Florida economy, any removal of additional amount of capital from that system can further damage what is already a fragile economic picture,'' he said, after addressing the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which has made passage of the bill one of its top priorities this session. "Plus, the fact that we are going to be closing a $1 billion budget shortfall, and dealing with reapportionment, means that is not likely to pass."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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