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Legislature's final act _ tax breaks

The Legislature is out and the $50 checks should be in the mail by summer.

Lawmakers concluded their 1998 session shortly before 6 p.m. Friday, showering Floridians with millions of dollars in unprecedented tax breaks. By fall, some 3.6-million owners of houses, condos and mobile homes with homestead exemptions can expect to receive $50 "tax rebate" checks.

For a week in August, everyone will be able to buy clothing and shoes priced under $50 each without paying sales taxes.

"We want to give the taxpayers of the state of Florida something tangible back so they can use it any way they choose, as opposed to the government using it," said Rep. John Thrasher, R-Orange Park.

On the Legislature's final, frenzied day, lawmakers also agreed on a plan to dramatically expand subsidized health coverage to 256,000 more children from low-income families. The insurance was a top priority for Gov. Lawton Chiles in his final legislative session before he leaves office in January.

Lawmakers also paid for an additional 24,000 slots in subsidized child care for working families, another top priority for the governor.

And they approved funding _ $100-million over 10 years _ for a major new cancer research facility at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

"We'll be a resource center, not only for the Tampa Bay area, but worldwide," said Rep. Debra Tamargo, R-Tampa.

But in the session's final hours, legislators could not agree on several high-profile issues. They include vouchers that would have used public money to pay for private tuition, and a successor to the popular Preservation 2000 land-buying program, which expires in two years.

Legislators also failed to provide money for more judges in circuits with heavy caseloads, such as Pinellas-Pasco and Hillsborough. The state Supreme Court had asked lawmakers to provide 18 new circuit and county judges, but the bill fizzled because of a dispute over whether the judges would be elected this fall or appointed by the new governor next spring.

Senate President Toni Jennings shrugged it off. "We'll still have judges," she said.

Jennings and Webster converged just before 6 p.m. in the lobby between their chambers to tout their accomplishments and to sign a giant mock $50 check made out to "Homeowner."

"Because of our efforts, it will be a great day in Florida," Jennings said, after she and Webster toasted with iced tea.

Chiles agreed children benefitted in tangible ways during the session. But overall, he had some mixed reviews over how lawmakers chose to spend a $45.3-billion budget made fat by a strong economy and the landmark tobacco settlement.

"The disappointment is to come into a session where additional money came onto the table . . . (but) we didn't use that largesse we had for . . . reducing class size (and pre-kindergarten) programs. The health care package could have been bigger, things that could really help Florida, rather than a lot of projects."

Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay said the Legislature's priorities were skewed too much toward helping business, rather than the needs of families.

The Legislature packed the budget with some $370-million worth of tax breaks for individuals and businesses and pork-barrel project to please constituents.

The most expensive and dramatic break is the plan to send $50 checks to Floridians who have homestead exemptions as of June 30. The Department of Revenue will send the checks out as soon as possible after that date, although they will have to go out in batches because of the large numbers involved. It will cost an estimated $1.8-million just to mail the checks, and the overall rebate will cost $185-million.

And for those who might resent lawmakers giving out checks, rather than spending more on schools or roads, there is an alternative. Presuming the governor allows the plan to become law, property owners will receive a letter from Chiles and legislative leaders, along with the check. That letter will explain how they can return the money to the state and designate it to be used for education, children's health, criminal justice or transportation.

Critics complained that the bill leaves out the millions of Floridians who rent property. Rep. John Cosgrove, D-Miami, called it "an election-year gimmick."

"A lot of people who pay taxes in-state don't have homes. They don't have that all-American dream," said Rep. Les Miller, D-Tampa, who advocated an alternative plan giving nearly 8-million Floridians $25 rebates on their August electric bills.

But lawmakers did provide broader tax relief. From Aug. 15 to 21, shoppers won't have to pay sales tax on clothing and shoe purchases up to $50 per item. The cost to the state is estimated at $20-million.

Another tax break is the start of a three-year phase-out on the intangibles tax on accounts receivable. The state also no longer will collect the intangibles tax from people whose bills would be less than $60. Now anyone who owes more than $5 must pay the tax.

Lawmakers approved various other tax breaks for manufacturers, airlines, and agricultural interests.

But even before the end of the session, Chiles vetoed a $76-million tax break that would have reduced the "by-the-drink" surcharge on alcohol. The break was touted as a plan to increase restaurant profits so they could afford to hire more welfare recipients. But skeptics doubted it would work.

The 1998-99 budget includes a 4.6 percent increase in per-student spending, $300-million to pay for another series of bonds for the Preservation 2000 land-buying program, and money for 1,400 more prison beds.

While there are no general tax increases, there is a 7 percent increase in tuition for community college and university students.

The expansion of the subsidized health insurance program will cover an additional 256,000 children of low-income families. Under the $344-million "Florida Kidcare Program" a combination of state and federal dollars will be used to cover the additional children from birth to age 5.

Families earning less than twice the poverty level, or $32,900 for a family of four, qualify for the program.

Even with the expansion, some 500,000 children in Florida still will lack health coverage.

"We've got a magnificent package that's a tribute to Lawton Chiles' 40-year history serving the children of Florida," Rep. George Albright, R-Ocala, said before the House unanimously passed the insurance package.

As Chiles stood beside Jennings at the end of the session, the Senate also approved a $10-million expansion of Healthy Families. That is a voluntary program aimed at helping at-risk families before abuse occurs. The program already exists in Pinellas and a handful of other counties.

Both Chiles and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush strongly support the Healthy Families program.

Among the other accomplishments this legislative session: an overhaul of the rules regardling civil lawsuits; a requirement that doctors give parents or legal guardians 48 hours' notice before performing abortions on teen girls; and a plan to allow compensation for two men who spent 12 years on death row for murders another man has admitted committing.

_ Times staff writers Julie Hauserman and Diane Rado contributed to this report.

The bottom line

Some of the bills legislators have approved could save Floridians some money:

Property tax rebate: Every owner of a homestead property will get $50

Tax-free shopping days: The sales tax will be suspended Aug. 15-21 on clothing and footwear that cost up to $50 per item

Intangibles tax: You won't have to pay unless you owe at least $60.

Marriage licenses: You'll get a $32 discount if you take a 4-hour marriage prep course.

Teacher stipend: Public school teachers will each get $100 to offset cost of supplies

Health insurance: 256,000 more children will qualify for state-funded health insurance.

Homestead for elders: Low-income Floridians over age 65 might get up to another $25,000 homestead exemption, if voters pass a Constitutional amendment approved by legislators _ and local governments endorse the plan.

Excellent Teacher Program: Raises for teachers who get national certification.