A $350 million tax package moved forward Thursday in the House, but local governments are fighting parts of the bill that they say could lift restrictions on “puppy mills” and adult entertainment establishments.
The House Appropriations Committee voted 18-7 to advance the wide-ranging package (HB 7087), which includes offering sales-tax “holidays,” providing some post-Hurricane Irma tax relief and reducing a commercial lease tax.
The package has run into controversy as city and county officials object to what they consider overly broad preemption language that would prohibit local bans on the sales of any goods subject to sales taxes.
Edward Labrador, a lobbyist for Broward County, said preemptions typically are designed to address a specific issue and noted the House proposal would have tied Broward’s hands in the past when it outlawed synthetic drugs called “bath salts.”
“We acted before the state did, and if this provision had been in place, we wouldn’t have been able to deal with that issue,” Labrador said.
Amber Hughes, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, said the recently introduced preemption language raises too many questions, ranging from how it would impact local prohibitions on adult entertainment establishments to how scooters are rented.
“If we want to have an individual conversation about different preemptions, which I know we do pretty much every Session, we’d be happy to do that,” Hughes said. “But doing it in the tax package maybe is not the correct place.”
Kate MacFall, the Humane Society’s Florida state director, argued the measure would eliminate rules that about 60 governments have on pet-breeding facilities.
“If this were to pass, it would allow stores to source from inhumane breeders, puppy mills, that keep animals in conditions that pet-loving Floridians would find appalling and unacceptable,” MacFall said.
Some lawmakers said the package should be slowed until decisions are made about the Legislature’s intended response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, along with related costs.
“Until we know what we’re doing the next three weeks, I’m not doing anything,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat and a graduate of the school where 17 people were killed.
Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, expressed concerns about aspects of the preemption. But he said he was willing to work with bill sponsor Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican, to tighten the language to address adult book stores and massage parlors.
“Being from a county in Central Florida, we’re very sensitive to the public-safety risks that come from human trafficking,” Brodeur said. “Our county has worked very hard to get these places out of our community. If this would blanket let them back in, I think it would undo about 15 years of work by our county.”
Renner, who is chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, defended the preemption language by saying the puppy mill issue illustrates the need for statewide regulations.
“If you have a situation where some cities have banned the sales of those types of puppies and others have not, you have not solved the problem,” Renner said. “You’ve not solved the problem for the puppies and you’ve not solve the problem for the residents of Florida. I think it, in fact, makes the case why in certain areas we need to look at statewide, and in some cases federal, preemption.”
Florida Retail Federation lobbyist Melissa Ramba also argued that local ordinances banning sales of select items create problems for business owners.
“Address the bigger problem, not the sale of cats and dogs. A retailer should be able to sell any legal retail product in Florida,” Ramba told the committee. “The ordinances that local governments pass only support online sales. They do not support your local business. You can still order a dog online and pick it up at the airport, even though you may have an ordinance that may ban the sale of cats and dogs.”
The overall tax package features a series of sales tax “holidays’ on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies and offers an 18 percent reduction in penalties for non-criminal traffic infractions — such as speeding within 30 mph over the posted limit — if motorists attend driver-improvement school.
Former State Rep. Irv Slosberg expressed concern that the 18 percent reduction in non-criminal traffic tickets would roll back some of the traffic-safety efforts he pushed while in the House.
“What we’re doing by lowering traffic fines by 18 percent, we’re really rewarding bad behavior,” said Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat.
Meanwhile, Democrats and public-school educators remain opposed to the largest part of the package, $154 million in sales-tax credits that businesses could take to fund voucher-like scholarships in the Gardiner Scholarship Program and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Critics contend the proposal would be a “giveaway” of public school dollars.
“For the first time, we’re going to give private schools a direct line to the sales tax, which makes up 78 percent of all general revenue,” said Rich Templin, legislative and political director of the Florida AFL-CIO.
Airport officials also continue to express displeasure with the package’s call to reduce the aviation fuel tax next year to 2.85 cents a gallon. Revenue from the tax is used to secure federal matching funds and helps pay for airport improvements.
The rate is currently scheduled to go down from 6.9 cents to 4.27 cents a gallon next year.
The package also includes a $6.7 million cut that would provide a sales-tax exemption for generator purchases by nursing homes and assisted living facilities. It also includes tax refunds on building materials, fencing and gas for farmers hit by Irma.
Another $34.1 million next year in the House package would come from reducing the commercial lease tax from 5.8 percent to 5.5 percent starting Jan. 1. That reduction would affect half of the state’s 2018-2019 fiscal year, and the savings to businesses would grow to $81.1 million when implemented for a full fiscal year.