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Answers on prisons, money are easy

It's what many people these days call a "no-brainer," which means it's a proposal or idea that requires little or no thought because the need for its implementation or rejection is so obvious.

Rep. Paul Hawkes, whose district includes all of Citrus County and part of Hernando County, has introduced two bills in the state House of Representatives that are brimming with common sense and fairness. Read on and see if you agree they fall into the "no-brainer" category.

No-brainer No. 1: "We have your money . . ." Since certificates of deposit and interest on savings accounts are so dismal these days, many people, particularly retirees, have put more of their money into stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc.

Those people, if their investments are more than $20,000, are required to pay Florida's intangible personal property tax. The fee is relatively modest: $1 per $1,000 for the first $100,000, and $2 per thousand for any sum higher than that.

The state Department of Revenue mailed 1.8-million returns to Florida residents this year, asking them to pay the intangible tax on their investments. Most residents pay the tax, and the state brings in about $600-million a year from that source, according to Joe Parramore, a tax law specialist with the Department of Revenue. (Incidentally, Parramore adds, the department estimates almost $200-million a year goes uncollected.)

But many people don't understand the tax form they get from the state. Equally confusing can be the letters they get from their investment companies regarding their liability for the intangible tax.

Consequently, it is not uncommon for residents to overpay the state, or in some cases, according to Representative Hawkes, to pay twice.

The way the system is set up now, if you mistakenly pay the state more than you actually owe, the Department of Revenue sends you a letter that basically says "We have your money." They then go on to explain to you what bureaucratic hoops you must jump through before you can reclaim what is rightfully yours.

In many cases, the amount is less than $100 and residents would rather forget about the money than waste their time on the paperwork. That means the state keeps the money, which seems to be an awfully convenient arrangement for the Department of Revenue.

Now for the no-brainer: Hawke's bill would require the Department of Revenue to go ahead and send your refund _ not a letter saying "We have your money" _ as soon as they discover the overpayment.

Makes sense to me. The bill (HB 1963) is now in the House Finance and Taxation Committee. It should be on the agenda for a committee hearing soon.

No-brainer No. 2: a pittance for prisons. News flash: We have a crime problem in this state. It's so bad that prisons are overcrowded and inmates are being released early to make room for new criminals.

You say that's not news? Okay, you're right.

But did you know that many counties in Florida have jails with empty cells. The people who run these county jails are more than willing to temporarily house state or federal prisoners to ease the overcrowding in their institutions _ for a price.

Federal officials pay county jails about $52 per day, per inmate to take care of their overflow. Meanwhile, the state Department of Corrections will pay only $32 per inmate.

Many sheriffs agree the state's payment is too low to cover the added costs of caring for the criminals. Those costs include food, guards, etc.

But if the state could afford to cough up $42 per day, per inmate, then the sheriffs might see fit to welcome the lawbreakers into their gray-bar hotels.

Why $42 a day? Because that's what the Department of Corrections' annual report says it costs the state to house one prisoner for one day.

Representative Hawkes' no-brainer on this bill would require DOC officials to pay the county jails at least, but no more, than what it costs the state to do the same job.

That seems infinitely fair to me. And if it would help ease the overcrowding in state facilities so violent criminals aren't being dumped back on our streets before their sentences are served, the extra cost would be worth it.

This bill (HB 1399) has already cleared the House Corrections Committee. Now it's lingering in the House Appropriations Committee. If it eventually passes votes in the House and Senate, it becomes effective immediately.

And everyone agrees that the problem of overcrowding needs immediate attention.