TALLAHASSEE — Late Friday night, the Legislature passed their tax package bill — with modified language that required school districts to share voter-approved referendum funds with charter schools, but only for future ballot measures.
The language stems from a fight in Miami-Dade, whose voters recently passed a ballot referendum to hike their local property taxes in the name of giving public school teachers raises and increasing school security. District officials have said they would not be sharing the bulk of those funds with charter schools, which are publicly funded schools managed by private entities.
After several iterations of the bill that would’ve required all extra property tax money generated from past referendums to be shared with charters, then a version that would’ve only applied to Miami-Dade retroactively, the final bill only requires districts to share the money for referendums passed after July 1. Charter schools must use the additional funds for the same purpose as district schools.
“A teacher in a charter school as well as a student in a charter school is the same thing as a teacher or a student in a traditional public school,” said the House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah.
But in a last-minute act of defiance, Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, stood on the Senate floor, nearing 11 p.m., and said he didn’t support the House’s version as it relates to charter schools and encouraged other Republicans to join him in voting “no.”
“I have supported every charter school program ... but let’s be honest, blatantly honest: the charter school industry would have us believe what Sen. (Rob) Bradley has parroted tonight, that charter school are public schools," Lee said. "Well, charter schools are certainly run by public school districts, but they are contract schools ... and (let’s) stand against them just one time.”
It passed the Senate, and no Republicans joined Lee’s down-vote.
The bill also includes a last-minute tax cut to wholesale telecommunications companies by exempting them from a per-mile tax on telephone or fiber lines they lay on public lands. That’s estimated to cost local governments $400,000 statewide, Avila said, touting the For cities like Miami and Tampa, that will mean roughly $25,000 lost annually, according to a 2018 Revenue Estimating Conference report.
At least one company that would benefit from this change, Crown Castle, was registered to lobby on the bill in the House. It had never been heard as part of the tax package until it was amended onto the bill after 9 p.m. Friday. It had been pulled from another bill, Senate Bill 1000, which had been heard in both chambers. House Speaker José Oliva said it was intended to give companies a break so that they would pass it along to consumers.
“This is a dark-of-the-night sneak attack on a 20-year-old law,” said Amber Hughes, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities. “They wouldn’t have to do it tonight if it would stand up to the scrutiny of the light of day.”
The bill, House Bill 7123, includes about $121 million in other breaks, including a major reduction to business’ lease tax, a major priority of lawmakers of both parties. It also has sales-tax-free days for hurricane preparedness and back-to-school shopping and refunds for hauling debris from Hurricane Michael.