Sales tax holidays in doubt

Apr 16, 2008

St. Petersburg Times--April 15, 2008
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s popular sales tax holiday for back-to-school supplies is in jeopardy.

Money is so tight as the Legislature writes the 2008-09 state budget, senators are balking at renewing the 10-day, early-August tax break for backpacks and other back-to-school items.

The temporary tax break — a recurring feature for most of the past 10 years — would drain up to $41-million from state coffers in a year when health care, prisons and schools are being cut and some state workers are losing their jobs.

Also in limbo is a second, $12-million tax holiday for the first week of hurricane season for flashlights, radios, batteries, tarps, generators and other supplies for riding out a hurricane.

While the full House is ready to vote on both plans, the Senate hasn’t had a single committee hearing on either one. Leaders say they have to make sure the state’s priorities are met in the budget first.

"If you’ve got money left to spend, then you look at how to spend it," said Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, sponsor of the back-to-school holiday plan (SB 2094).

The Senate’s chief budget writer, Republican Lisa Carlton of Osprey, suggested she’d be open to a shorter, cheaper back-to-school break: "We’re looking at something limited."

Under the House plan (HB 893), books, backpacks, clothing and shoes costing $50 or less would be exempt from sales tax Aug. 2 to 11 along with school supplies, such as pencils and notebooks, worth $10 or less.

The holiday was first enacted in 1998 and has been re-enacted every year except in 2003 and 2004.

Rick McAllister of the Florida Retail Federation said an abbreviated back-to-school sales tax holiday is better than nothing, but his group was eager to see evidence that it’s still a priority.

"People do look forward to it," said McAllister.

The hurricane-related tax break (HB 111) sponsored by Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, would eliminate sales tax on an assortment of supplies from June 1 to 7.

But the Senate plan (SB 86) for a slightly longer holiday, June 1-12, is stalled. "Everyone in the Legislature likes it, so it’s just a matter of, ‘Can we do it?’ " said Senate sponsor Carey Baker, R-Eustis.

House budget chairman Ray Sansom, R-Destin, was optimistic consumers will see at least one of the sales tax holidays pass, but not both. "I feel pretty confident we’ll come out of here with one of them."