Florida legislators spent two days this week doing something they have never done before.
They reviewed sales tax exemptions for charter fishing trips, fish breeding, eyeglasses, and high school and college stadium skyboxes.
It was quite a show, and it was a very long time in coming. Seven years have passed since then-Senate President John McKay suggested that people who enjoy tax breaks should be required to defend them every so often.
Not many people expect any exemptions to be eliminated, but the Senate is serious about the subject, and a public discussion is a beginning.
Over two days in the House Finance and Tax Council, representatives of affected services and businesses warned that they would be devastated if the state taxed them.
They came from Destin, Fort Lauderdale and Panama City. It turns out the industry people were invited by the Legislature to come and tell their tales of woe (no record exists of average citizens also being invited to testify).
Capt. Bob Zales, who charters fishing boats out of Panama City, said an eight-hour trip can cost up to $1,000, but business is bad and he worried about the effect of a $60 tax on an excursion.
Taxing charter boats "will likely be the final blow to us," he testified.
The review of exemptions looked sincere, until lawmakers brought up the question of whether to tax Old Glory by removing the sales tax exemption on the sales of American flags.
Rep. Peter Nehr of Tarpon Springs came to the lectern, telling legislators of his 20 years of experience at selling flags.
If you tax flags, "I think you'd be upsetting a lot of military people," Nehr warned.
Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, the council chairman, said the review of exemptions will continue next week, but she sounded wary of any repeals.
"You want to be sure you're not poking an industry in the eye to make a political statement," she said.
Recalling a recent town hall meeting in her district, Bogdanoff said, "The citizens of this state for the most part are not interested in higher taxes."
For four hours over two days, Pamela Hemmen of St. Augustine sat in the audience, taking notes.
A 35-year-old mother who drove from St. Augustine, she sells real estate and volunteers at her kids' schools. Given a whole three minutes to testify, she spoke about the lights being shut off in school hallways to save money, suspension of middle school sports and a lack of money for the school band.
"Obviously, people have a lot of money to be spending money on these things," she said of charter boat rentals and other beneficiaries of tax exemptions.
Hemmen pleaded with legislators to think beyond the people in the room who benefit financially from tax exemptions.
"Is it really, truly going to help the people of Florida — the people as a whole, not this one certain class that drives a Mercedes, but the people as a whole," Hemmen said. "Are these exemptions truly going to help them?"
As her question lingered in midair, the chairman adjourned the meeting.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.