Democrats challenge tax cut vote after daylong slowdown
May 1, 2013
The following article was published in the Orlando Sentinel on May 1, 2013:
By Aaron Deslatte
TALLAHASSEE — A showdown over expanding health care to low-income Floridians slowed the Legislature to a crawl for a second day Wednesday, with the fate of an elections-reform package, sports-stadium tax breaks and other bills hanging in the balance.
A long day ended just before 8 p.m., as House Republicans rammed through a 96-page tax bill — including a sales-tax break on manufacturing that was a priority of Gov. Rick Scott — with no debate. Democrats immediately challenged the results, saying the bill failed to get the two-thirds vote constitutionally required to change local-government tax rates.
“This day is not our finest hour on anyone’s side,” House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said to lawmakers from the rostrum.
The manufacturing tax cut — which will last three years and cost $100 million next year —reduces revenues to state and local governments. GOP lawmakers saw its passage as necessary for Scott to sign campaign-finance and ethics bills backed by the leadership, and it had passed the Senate earlier by a 37-3 vote.
“It’s outrageous. It’s improper, and in my opinion it borders on unethical,” Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said before the 68-48 vote for HB 7007.
After adjourning the chamber, Weatherford told reporters his lawyers had assured him the bill was “extremely constitutional.”
“We looked into that very closely. We do not believe it needs a two-thirds vote,” Weatherford said, although his office would not release any legal opinion.
But House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, a lawyer, called that plainly wrong and said a lawsuit challenging the vote would be coming soon. The Florida Democratic Party called it a “blatant disregard for the Florida Constitution.”
“The legal implication is that it requires a two-thirds vote on at least one bill in the package. We don’t know everything that is in there. They did not get a two-thirds vote,” Thurston said.
It was a wild ending to a day that began with an automated voice, a software program named “Mary,” reading bills while lawmakers sat idly at their desks and lobbyists scrambled in the Capitol Rotunda to find out whether their bills were dying before the session’s adjournment Friday.
House Democrats had invoked a little-used procedural rule to require bills be read in full on the floor in order to slow the session during its final three days. They began the move Tuesday to draw attention to Republicans’ refusal to accept $51 billion in federal Medicaid expansion money.
As the day dragged on, House Republicans retaliated by postponing votes on bills sponsored by Democrats, including one (SB 442) carried by Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, and Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, creating a black cultural commission.
“I am very frustrated, extremely frustrated,” Thompson said after trying to lobby House lawmakers to return to the bill. “I see the bigger picture … but I am frustrated nonetheless. We’re not going to get [health care] resolved by Friday, so I’m saying we’ve made our point; let’s get back to the order of business.”
Republicans also postponed a vote on an elections reform that restores up to two weeks of early voting and expands locations for pre-election balloting. The bill was a Democratic priority in the wake of the long lines and late vote counts during the 2012 election, but it also has had widespread GOP support.
“We’re acting like vengeful little children,” Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, said at one point.
Also caught in the crossfire is a sports-stadium bill (SB 306) that would create a method for the Miami Dolphins, Orlando Major League Soccer supporters, Daytona International Speedway and other sports franchises to get in line for $13 million in annual tax breaks for stadium construction or upgrades.
Democrats said they weren’t standing in the way of a stadium-bill vote.
The last days of a session often see bills shuttling between chambers, as lawmakers seek to work out last-minute differences. A slimmed-down Citizens Property Insurance bill and a measure banning texting while driving still had to win approval from both chambers.
Throughout the day, Democrats used their floor time to take shots at the GOP for not passing a health-care expansion. Sometimes they read from the Florida Constitution.
But it seemed clear that the expansion was dead for this session, killed by the refusal of House Republicans to accept federal Medicaid money available through the Affordable Care Act.
Meanwhile, Sen. Andy Gardiner said the push to merge the toll-road authorities of Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties may be dead for the year — thanks to resistance from House Majority Leader Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, as well as the House slowdown.
“Given where the House is with all their stuff, it’s probably not going to make it,” said Gardiner, an Orlando Republican slated to be the next Senate president. “We’re going to put it on a few things. We’re going to send it over, and if they don’t like it, they can strip it out.”
Creating the Central Florida Expressway Authority has been a priority for Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Gardiner and other senators, but not the House, where Precourt has been fighting it all session. Other counties — Osceola in particular — have also objected to allowing Orlando’s mayor to sit on the new board.
Local tolling authorities in Central Florida have passed resolutions objecting to it.
Another bill caught in the slowdown was the Orange County-inspired effort that “pre-empts” local governments from requiring many employers to offer sick-time benefits to workers.