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Florida Senate makes it hard for Gov. Crist to say no to tobacco tax

TALLAHASSEE — As legislators signed off on rival spending plans Tuesday, the Senate showed its determination to force Gov. Charlie Crist to accept a tax on smokers — or risk a budget flame out.

The Senate wants to make the $1-a-pack tobacco tax almost veto-proof by directing the surcharge's proceeds into Medicaid. Medicaid is a linchpin of balancing the budget because it's linked to billions in federal stimulus money.

If Crist vetoes the tobacco tax, his move could create a $3 billion budget hole in the Medicaid program, a federal-state insurance program for children, the elderly and the sick that Crist backs.

Crist has repeatedly said he opposes a new tobacco tax. But his opposition appears to be softening.

"It may be difficult for the governor to get at," said Senate budget leader J.D. Alexander, a Winter Haven Republican.

Crist, who ducked a reporter's question about the Senate's veto-proof language, has begun trying to spare cigarmakers from the tobacco tax.

"I view that (as) more of a Florida industry," Crist said.

So do legislators from Miami-Dade County and the Tampa Bay area, where the cigar industry is based. Some lawmakers are working behind the scenes to spare hometown cigarmakers.

Florida's state tax on cigarettes, 33.9 cents per pack, is one of the nation's lowest and has not been raised since 1990. The increased tax has bipartisan support in the Senate but resistance is much higher in the Florida House. The House hasn't heard the tax bill and has no tobacco-tax money in its proposed budget.

But even House legislators are acknowledging the surcharge — as long as it's earmarked for Medicaid — is in play with less than a month before the May 1 end of session.

Also on the table: plans by both Crist and the Senate to ink a taxable gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

"There are going to be issues that come down to the final moments whether it's going to be the budget, obviously cigarette taxes, and obviously the gaming issue," said House Republican leader Adam Hasner of Delray Beach.

Lawmakers from both chambers predicted they would agree on a balanced budget by May 1. But significant differences remain now that the full budget committees from both chambers voted out their budget plans.

The House's proposed budget is $546 million smaller than the Senate's, and it has roughly $800 million in new fees. The Senate version raises $2.1 billion in new fees and taxes.

The fee increases in both budgets would up the cost of court filings, some fishing licenses, driver license tags, registrations, driving tests, license reinstatements, accident reports and original or duplicate titles of cars.

Some senators bristled at the heavy reliance on fee increases to preserve the jobs of state troopers.

"If it's coming out of your pocket, it's a tax," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "Any euphemism doesn't really change a thing."

Still, Lynn voted for the bill (SB 1778) containing $365 million in new fees on motorists.

House Democrats bashed the fee increases as well, along with a Republican plan to cut 4 percent from the salaries of state workers making between $28,000 and $100,000 a year. The Senate would impose a 1 percent pay cut on those making more than $100,000.

"As I look at this budget, I feel for the middle class and the poor," said Yolly Roberson, D-North Miami. Rep. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, mentioned a constituent who got an extra job at Taco Bell to make ends meet. He said legislators haven't done as good a job trying to find new revenue.

"I don't believe we have tried to find that night job at Taco Bell," he said.

No part of the House budget got more discussion Tuesday than the preK-12 portion.

Chairwoman Anitere Flores, R-Miami, touted a slight increase in per-student funding.

Democrats complained about cuts to mentoring and teacher development programs.

"The fact is that we have less money. I don't know how else to say it," Flores said. "The fact that we're not cutting per-student funding, I think, is a victory.'

Partisan bickering broke out over who deserved credit for meeting educators' appeals to protect the funding. Republican leaders thanked each other, staff and Floridians.

Democrats thanked President Barack Obama for pushing the federal stimulus package.

Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, put it bluntly. The stimulus, he said, "bailed our butts out."

Though the Senate has the tax increase in its budget, Hialeah Republican Sen. Rudy Garcia said he's working to exempt cigarmakers, who could be charged $1 per ounce of tobacco.

"It could effect 10,000 rollers in direct or indirect jobs," Garcia said.

The Senate's budget chief, Alexander, said he placed the tobacco tax in the budget by using special "proviso'' language. Normally, a governor can veto a line item of spending.

But vetoing proviso language for Medicaid risks undoing the entire program and throwing the budget into chaos. That's especially true this year when federal stimulus money for Medicaid helps balance the entire budget.

Alexander and Senate President Jeff Atwater said that, if the Legislature doesn't increase tobacco taxes, all taxpayers will be on the hook for higher Medicaid costs.

"I think tobacco, no matter what its form, causes tobacco-related illnesses," Alexander said. "And we've adopted a policy that we believe is fair to all based on the amount of tobacco consumed rather than other illnesses."

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

Florida Senate makes it hard for Gov. Crist to say no to tobacco tax 04/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 7:36pm]

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