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Treasury rich in revenue lets the good times roll

Not since the late 1970s have state lawmakers been rolling in so much money. And they took full advantage this legislative session.

They spent $344-million for an unprecedented expansion of children's health insurance. They approved the biggest increase in education spending in a decade. They put an extra $100-million into reserves and spent more than $200-million on pork-barrel projects, most of which were never publicly debated.

And perhaps best of all for politicians heading into election season, they showered constituents with first-time-ever tax breaks: temporarily lifting the sales tax on some clothing purchases to declare a statewide back-to-school sale, and deciding to send 3.6-million property owners a $50 "rebate check" by Oct. 1.

"The Republican Party is sending a political message," said Rep. Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat, R-Miami. "We are about tax relief."

GOP leaders show few signs of concern over repercussions from raising college tuition 7 percent or leaving 500,000 children without insurance in such a flush budget year.

Nor do they expect to encounter many residents like Kenneth Tuma, a retired teacher from Tarpon Springs, who heard of the tax rebate proposal and fired off a letter to Gov. Lawton Chiles. How could lawmakers spend $1.8-million to process and mail $185-million in rebate checks, rather than spending the money on schools or simply cutting taxes?

"Leave it to the politicians to get us to pay for everything, even the . . . propaganda," Tuma wrote.

Even if Chiles allows the tax break proposals to become law, uncertainty surrounds both.

Though Republican leaders say they are sure giving rebates to residents with homestead exemptions is legal, they acknowledge that a court challenge could delay the checks until after the election.

Some say a refund only for homeowners is unconstitutional.

"I don't think the homestead person will ever see that check," said House Minority Leader Buzz Ritchie, who tried unsuccessfully to kill the $185-million rebate and spend it on government buildings and communications equipment for emergency workers.

Another tax break will exempt from sales taxes every item of clothing or footwear up to $50 bought from Aug. 15-21. That doesn't include clothes bought at theme parks.

It would allow someone to buy thousands of dollars worth of clothing tax-free, as long as no single item costs more than $50. Even local-option sales taxes, such as those in Pinellas and Hillsborough, would be removed.

How much money will the state lose?

"We're saying it's $20-million, but how do we figure that? I'm not so sure it's correct," House Majority Leader Jim King said.

John Habgood, fiscal services administrator for St. Petersburg, said he doubted the break will hurt the county's Penny for Pinellas tax, which pays for capital improvement projects. "If we have a good tourist year, we can probably make up for that pretty easily. It probably means a bigger hit statewide," Habgood said.

One tax-break proposal touted by House leaders died: a plan to let so-called safe drivers renew their licenses for free.

Residents weren't the only beneficiaries of tax relief. Lawmakers approved more than $150-million worth of tax breaks for business, including: starting a three-year phase-out of the state's intangibles tax on accounts receivable, or money owed to companies; and eliminating sales taxes on electricity and steam used by large manufacturers, pollution control equipment, aircraft parts, printing company equipment and agricultural equipment.

"In terms of things for business, this was probably the best year we've had in a very long time," said Martha Larson of Enterprise Florida, an economic development group.