Session Preview: Tax Cuts And Rosy Budget Outlook In An Election Year

Mar 3, 2014

Activists rally outside the Capitol on the eve of Session 2014.
Credit Gina Jordan/WLRN

March 4 marks the start of the 2014 Florida Legislative session at the Capitol. It runs through May 2.

For two months, lawmakers will consider proposed legislation on everything from marijuana to red-light cameras.

All they really have to do is come up with a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in July.  Gov. Rick Scott is recommending half a billion dollars in tax and fee cuts.

“The biggest piece of our tax cut budget is a tax cut of more than $400-million by eliminating the 2009 annual motor vehicle increases,” Scott told reporters at the Capitol in late January.

Scott’s tax cut package includes two sales tax holidays. If approved, Floridians will get ten days of tax-free back to school shopping and a fifteen-day sales tax break on hurricane-related items. Scott says families will save more than $82 million on hurricane and school supplies.

Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet sat down to talk about a few of the biggest policy issues for lawmakers, including Medicaid, the budget, and tax and fee cuts.

WLRN: Steve, tell us about the budget outlook.

BOUSQUET: The budget outlook is better than it has been in the last several years, so that explains the sort of good mood that this session is beginning on. (Scott is proposing a nearly $74.2 billion spending plan.)

Florida’s economy has gotten better. Sales tax revenues are on the increase. It gives the Legislature more money to play with, and for the first time in about five years, they don’t have to cut the budget.

WLRN: Lawmakers will consider significant cuts in taxes and fees. Gov. Rick Scott has called for half a billion dollars worth of cuts. What might these cuts mean for average Floridians?

BOUSQUET: They’re not going to mean much because in a state with almost 20 million people in it, $500 million does sound like a lot of money but it’s going to be spread pretty broadly among the populace.

They’ve already done the calculations on the tag fee reductions, and the average motorist would save $25 a year. The other part of his tax cut package is really a very, very small reduction in the sales tax that businesses pay on their electric bills.

WLRN: Last year’s legislature chose not to draw down $51 billion in federal funds to expand Medicaid, even through Gov. Scott said they should. Medicaid takes up a significant chunk of the state budget. So will we see any changes to Medicaid this year or at least a possible expansion using that federal money?

BOUSQUET: I really don’t think so. The lines are dug too deep in the sand here by both parties. The House Republican leadership has made it very clear they oppose an expansion of Medicaid. But now we get to see what the session is really about.

Even though legislative leaders have a pretty ambitious agenda, this is an election year session. So the session is a 60-day template for both parties to polish the talking points they’re going to use on the campaign trail.

WLRN: Gov. Rick Scott can make recommendations, but it’s up to lawmakers to pass bills, pass a budget, and then wait for Scott’s signature or veto. The interesting dynamic here is that this may be Scott’s last session depending on what voters decide in November. How does that impact what lawmakers do and what Scott does this session?

BOUSQUET: It adds a layer of partisan politics to the session. Rick Scott’s not doing well in the polls, but the Republican leadership of the Florida Legislature does not want to see a Democrat get elected governor.

So even though they do have significant differences - both personal and philosophical on some issues -- the Republican leadership wants Rick Scott to look good because if he looks good in front of the Legislature, he’ll look better to voters on the campaign trail.

WLRN: There are plenty of big issues. Anything else you’d like to mention?

BOUSQUET: This session is noteworthy for the reason that Rick Scott needs to have some political victories that he can take on the campaign trail, and he’s going to keep the agenda fairly tight and fairly sharply focused.

There are two things he wants to do – cut those taxes and fees by half a billion dollars and put a little more money into the K-12 education system.

But Democrats are going to use this session from beginning to end to particularly and consistently lay out what they fully believe are the faults of this legislature and the failures of Rick Scott. So you’re going to see a campaign occur inside the legislative session.