No New Taxes in Special Session

No New Taxes in Special Session 

 By Michael Peltier | The News Service of Florida


TALLAHASSEE – Higher taxes on cigarettes, alcohol or just about anything else will be off the table next week when lawmakers return to battle the state’s $2.3 billion budget deficit, Republican House and Senate leaders said Tuesday as they officially called colleagues back for a special Legislative session.

Gearing up for two weeks of budget work that begins Jan. 5, Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Ray Sansom outlined a range of issues lawmakers can debate as they battle over how to balance the state’s current budget. 

Without comment, the pair released a copy of the official call.

While specifically ruling out alcohol or tobacco increases, still in the mix is the possibility of higher fines for traffic infractions, steeper penalties and fees for civil and criminal proceedings and a new $10 million loan program to help jumpstart the economy as lawmakers look for ways to address the worst economic downturn in Florida since the Great Depression.

“Let me remind you that these budget recommendations are a starting point for the important conversation we will be having during the Special Legislative Session and all ideas and suggestions are welcome,” Sansom said in a letter to members earlier Tuesday.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who has had no public events scheduled since before Christmas, wasn’t available for comment. He released a line-by-line proposal for cutting the budget a week ago, however. Lawmakers have said the House, Senate and governor are in general agreement on how the Legislature should approach the session, although a few differences have emerged. Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, for example, wants to cut more recurring money than Crist recommended. And the proposed stimulus loan program in the call was smaller than what Crist had proposed.

Democrats, meanwhile, lamented the session’s restrictions, especially the explicit ban on debate over higher taxes and fees on alcohol, cigarettes and other tobacco products. They also criticized the decision to release the call without more input from members from both sides of the aisle. 

“What happened to the idea of a full public discussion of these issues?” said Mark Hollis, spokesman for House Democrats.

The Democratic spokesman said it was also likely that many members would not be happy with the leaders’ decision not to consider legislation that would generate new revenue.

“…There will be members of the caucus who believe there should be consideration of fees related to alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and tobacco products,” Hollis said.

Backers say a $1 increase on a pack of cigarettes could bring in more than $700 million a year. House Republicans have generally been opposed to any tax increases, arguing that the absolute worst time to increase the tax burden on Floridians is when the economy is slumping.

Proponents of raising the tax argue that Florida’s is one of the lowest in the nation at 34 cents a pack and it hasn’t been raised since 1990. 

Lawmakers return Monday to begin budget deliberations. They are scheduled to complete their work over the next several days so they can adjourn by Jan. 16. Much of that time, however, will be spent in negotiations – some of it out of public view – between budget builders from each chamber. Lawmakers are expected to work over the weekend of Jan. 10 and 11 in conference committees.