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Retailers cheer sales tax holiday

A strong back-to-school season is made more so by the estimated $34.7-million tax break, which continues this weekend.

Florida's sales tax holiday rolls into its second and final weekend today with retailers pleased by the extra boost it gave their already robust back-to-school business.

"Business has been extremely strong," said Don Kakara, manager of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. store at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg. "We think this weekend it will get even better."

Hard figures were impossible to come by because the state cannot tally taxes it does not collect, and competition-wary retailers will not give out detailed sales figures. But merchants said the holiday has proved more lucrative and less confusing than last year's debut.

"It's gone very smoothly," said Bob Mitchell, special events coordinator for 23 JCPenney stores in central Florida. "Our sales are doing better than last year."

The nine-day holiday is the Legislature's way of cutting working-class Floridians in on $1-billion in tax breaks doled out from a state budget surplus. Most of the tax breaks went to business, but lawmakers added an estimated $34.7-million for consumers by exempting most apparel and footwear sales from sales taxes. The tax holiday ends at midnight Sunday, but most Tampa Bay area malls will observe their normal 6 p.m. closing time Sunday.

After its debut last August, lawmakers fine-tuned the tax-free holiday. They doubled the limit for a no-tax purchase to $100, stretched the holiday to a second weekend and moved the dates earlier to better match back-to-school shopping.

Many retailers have been promoting the holiday as an added lure for their regular back-to-school sales events.

The back-to-school season is apparel retailers' biggest summer sales generator. In departments such as juniors and young men's apparel, it is second only to Christmas and slightly ahead of spring break. Some families buy a year's worth of clothing for their children in August.

Depending in which county you shop, the tax saved is 6 to 7 percent of the purchase price. The $100 limit is on each item purchased, not the total transaction, so a Pinellas County resident would save $21 on a $300 shopping list. But if an item is one penny more than $100, tax is due on the entire amount for that item.

The exemption generally applies to clothing and footwear people wear regularly. For example, lawmakers made sports-related clothing, such as ball caps and uniforms, tax-exempt while keeping sports equipment taxable. Lawmakers also cleared up complaints about the first tax holiday by exempting book bags, fanny packs, wallets, handbags and diaper bags that had been taxed as luggage.

In an attempt to confine the tax savings to Florida residents, the tax holiday does not apply to stores in airports, hotels or theme parks. But the state Department of Revenue reversed its initial stance and extended the tax-free holiday to stores in migrant labor camps.

"There was confusion about whether migrant labor camps are public lodgings like hotels," said Dave Bruns, spokesman for the Department of Revenue. The department decided the Legislature did not intend to include the camps in that category.

Overall, there has been less confusion this year for Florida's 600,000 retail sales tax accounts and their customers. The state fielded 1,100 requests for information about the rules before the holiday began, but only 600 once it was under way. Only one compliance case was initiated after a Miami TV station reported a South Beach apparel store was still collecting sales tax.

This weekend's end of the tax break also may bring an effective close to back-to-school shopping.

"Our business is very good, but it was good in July as well," said Carey Watson, vice president of advertising for Burdines. "We expect it will get tougher after the sales tax holiday ends."