Julie Delegal: Do you want your Florida sales taxes going to religious schools?

The proposed legislative expansion of Florida’s private-school voucher program may jump the blurry line between private money and public money.

Instead of diverting only corporate taxes to pay for private-school vouchers, House Speaker Will Weatherford wants to use your sales tax dollars, and mine, to expand the voucher pot by another $30 million.

Many Floridians still don’t know: private-school vouchers are part and parcel of our state’s education “reform” strategy. That’s because in Florida, we call those tax diversions “scholarships.”

“Step Up For Students” is a corporation that came into being for one purpose: to disperse tax-credits to families to use for tuition at private schools, including religious schools.

The tax-credit voucher program gained popularity after the Florida Supreme Court struck down former Gov. Jeb Bush’s bid to use tax dollars for private-school tuition. Where Bush’s A+ plan would have used dollars already sitting in the Florida treasury, Step Up diverts would-be tax money to voucher users before it reaches state coffers.

The move by Weatherford to expand the so-called “tax credit scholarship program” — this time with sales tax money — flies in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that treats corporate tax credits as “donations.”

Never mind that corporate tax credits have never been mere “donations.” Usually, with donations, monetary gifts get deducted from taxable income.

In Florida, however, instead of a “deduction,” corporations that forward their taxes to the voucher program get dollar-for-dollar reductions on their state corporate tax bill.  And since Step Up is a nonprofit organization, corporate executives would be crazy not to use the “donation” on their federal returns as well.

Or would that figure fall under “state taxes paid” on the federal return? It’s an accounting nightmare best left to IRS professionals.

The United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, said a similar tax-credit scheme in Arizona amounts to donations, not public money.  The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO) case was decided solely on the issue of standing. The Court said “taxpayers” had no standing to sue for First Amendment violations because they failed to show a connection between their tax dollars and the corporate tax credits going to private religious schools. With no identifiable connection, the tax-credit program can’t be deemed to “establish” religion in violation of the First Amendment.

Weatherford is poised to create, however, the very connection that was lacking in the ACSTO case, and I’ve got the Walgreens receipts to prove it.

Executives at corporations like Walgreen Co., who “donate” their corporate tax payments to Step Up, won’t be able to hide behind the guise of charity if they forward your sales tax dollars to an entity that pays tuition at religious schools.

As a consumer, it would be ridiculous for me to argue with the Walgreens cashier about why I refuse to pay state sales tax on my purchase. It might not be so ridiculous, however, for taxpayers to seek relief in a federal court to prevent their sales tax dollars from being used to establish religion.

Sales tax money does not belong to the company paying the sales tax bill. Retailers are merely tax collectors for the state.

Libertarians will argue that it’s incumbent on the consumer to choose where they shop, to dig into public records and tax forms to see who pays their taxes to religious schools instead of to our government, and to avoid those businesses if it bothers them.

These are the same people who think businesses should be able to discriminate against people based on — well, based on however the business wants to discriminate.

This country settled that question a half-century ago.  Businesses have an obligation to obey the laws of the United States regarding individual liberties. The rights of businesses are not sacrosanct — particularly where they grind against the rights of individuals.

Relaying my sales tax dollars to establish religion does not fall under the prerogative of any corporation. Nor is it an allowable choice by the Florida Legislature. But it might be a terrific test case for building the argument that any taxpayer money — and any government actions that direct or divert it — could indeed be construed as “establishment.”

You might want to think this one through, Speaker Weatherford.

Julie Delegal is an Agnostic Episcopalian of Jewish descent, a champion of the five freedoms of First Amendment, and a writer who lives in Jacksonville. She is not an attorney and the opinion above does not constitute legal advice. Column courtesy of Context Florida

Julie Delegal

One comment

  • Michael

    March 17, 2014 at 7:42 am

    Absolutely not. What a bunch of Roundheads Weatherford et al have proved to be attempting to advantage their religious belefs through government.

Comments are closed.


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704