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Nickens: Legislature plays poker with your money

The poker game using your tax money is about to get serious in Tallahassee, and you could be the big loser.

Gov. Rick Scott has put all of his chips on the table. He wants $1 billion in tax cuts that primarily benefit businesses and $250 million for a slush fund for a flawed job incentives program. He wants to spend more on public schools, but he wants to do it largely on the backs of local property taxpayers.

The House's proposed state budget has $1 billion in tax cuts, but not the biggest business tax cut the governor wants. It also does not have the $250 million for his business slush fund. The Senate has just $250 million in tax cuts but supports $250 million for the slush fund with strings attached. It also would evenly split the cost of an increase in per student spending between the state and local taxpayers.

Those are the face cards, and you can imagine how it might play out. The House trades $1 billion in tax cuts for the Senate's $250 million slush fund, and they work around the edges on education spending. The governor declares victory, even if the tax cuts are different than he wants, and the slush fund comes with strings attached. Republican legislators go home happy and run for re-election. Scott keeps campaigning for the 2018 U.S. Senate race or whatever and keeps ignoring the state's needs.

And you lose.

Florida cannot afford cutting taxes by another $1 billion, especially when the economic recovery already shows signs of slowing. It is bad public policy to tie up another $250 million for the governor's slush fund, particularly when the money promised to businesses just sits there because so few of the jobs actually are created. And it would be deceitful for the governor and state lawmakers to brag about cutting taxes and raising education spending while financing it with property tax increases generated by higher property values.

Tampa Bay has three major players at the table. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and will become House speaker after the fall elections. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, got roped into being the point man on the jobs incentives package that he has campaigned to reform. Over the next month, pay attention to whose interests they represent and which deals they cut.

Lee, a former Senate president, took the long view last week. He noted that Republicans have delivered billions in tax cuts since they took full control of the Legislature two decades ago, but he acknowledged those tax cuts at times came at the cost of delaying investment in areas that needed attention. That's why he successfully pushed for a constitutional amendment that requires the state to develop a three-year financial plan so everyone sees tomorrow's consequences of today's decisions.

"Who is the most responsible individual?" Lee asked his colleagues last week just before the Senate voted unanimously for its spending plan. "The person who cuts the most taxes, or the person who lives within their means? The person who takes the short-term view knowing we're going into an election, or the statesman who takes the long-term view in what is in the best interests of their state?"

Excellent point. Lee called a $1 billion tax cut "fiscally irresponsible" and warned if lawmakers embraced it, the economic recovery could continue to weaken and they could be forced to return to Tallahassee this summer to cut spending or raise taxes.

"To me,'' Lee said, "that's not conservative.''

While the House stuck with a $1 billion tax cut over two years, Corcoran clearly wants to avoid digging a hole he would have to fill as speaker. The House left out Scott's demand to eliminate the corporate income tax at a cost of more than $700 million every year. There are still tax cuts for businesses, such a reduction on sales tax for commercial rents. But more of the House's tax cuts are aimed at consumers.

Latvala is hardly the biggest fan of Scott's job incentives. But he helped the governor win re-election, and now he is trying to reform the program so at least there would be more controls and a better return on taxpayers' investment. Let's see how firm the House stands on the conservative premise that government should not be picking economic winners and losers. In any event, there are not enough strings to justify tying up another $250 million for corporate giveaways.

Scott has a lot riding on this poker game. He recklessly campaigned for a $1 billion tax cut and the $250 million slush fund, running television ads and strong-arming local officials to embrace the jobs incentives. Those include Democratic Mayors Buddy Dyer of Orlando, Bob Buckhorn of Tampa and Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, who would not risk standing up to the governor and then losing out on his next ribbon-cutting.

It's up to Republican leaders such as Lee, Corcoran and Latvala to be the more responsible stewards of your tax money. They can't fear retribution from the governor, who can veto many of their projects like he did last year. They have to play out this poker game, and they cannot fold and declare victory.

Or you lose.

Nickens: Legislature plays poker with your money 02/12/16 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2016 6:10pm]
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