Flurry of bills clears way for session to end on time
Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 10:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 10:23 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - In a brazen display of deal making, Florida lawmakers on Wednesday swiftly rammed through one of Gov. Rick Scott's top priorities - a tax break for manufacturers - and the governor followed by signing two bills on ethics and campaign financing that were the top priorities of legislative leaders.
The developments clear the way for lawmakers to end their annual 60-day session on Friday with the passage of a new $74.5 billion state budget, and legislative leaders and Scott declaring the session a success.
But one of the casualties of the frantic law-making day was an alimony reform bill (SB 718) that Scott vetoed, saying he disagreed with a provision that would allow spouses to retroactively change their alimony agreements.
Lawmakers denied any formal arrangement about the succession of events, saying there was no "quid pro quo." But with the passage of a sales-tax exemption for equipment purchases by manufacturers (HB 7007), both Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, were quick to point out that lawmakers had approved Scott's top legislative priorities - the tax break and a $2,500 teacher pay raise contained in the state budget.
Shortly after his chamber backed the tax break, Gaetz called it "a good day for Gov. Scott."
"Everyone seems to be landing at a good place with priorities that matter to the people of Florida," Gaetz said.
Things were more tumultuous in the House - where the Democratic minority, upset over the lack of action on a Medicaid expansion plan, has been waging political warfare, requiring the chamber to use an automated voice system to read all the bills under consideration.
House leaders stirred more Democratic acrimony by quickly taking up the 96-page tax break bill and passing it without debate early Wednesday evening. Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, complained the action "bordered on the unethical."
"They did it in the dark," added Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.
Waldman said he expects Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties to challenge the tax break bill because it needed a two-thirds vote to pass since it would reduce local government revenue. Weatherford defended the procedure and validity of the House action, saying his legal team had determined the bill - which passed 68-48 - needed only majority backing.
"It was great to finish on a bill that gives the governor one of his priorities," Weatherford said. "It's going to create jobs and diversify our economy."
As for any linkage between the bill's passage and Scott's action on the ethics and campaign financing bills, Weatherford said: "Things just sometimes break the right way late in session."
But Weatherford also added: "It's not coincidental. We certainly have been talking with the governor. He has continued to remind us how important this tax cut is to the citizens of Florida."
The campaign finance bill (HB 569) signed by Scott was a top priority for Weatherford. It will lift contribution caps for statewide candidates, including those running for governor, from $500 to $3,000, and non-statewide candidates from $500 to $1,000. It also bans political committees that critics say have led to fundraising abuses.
Scott had previously voiced opposition to raising the contribution limits, but offered no explanation Wednesday night for his reversal.
The ethics bill (SB 2) was Gaetz's priority, with president calling its passage his "proudest" moment as a lawmaker. It will give more power to the state Ethics Commission to investigate complaints filed by the governor, state law enforcement agents and state and federal prosecutors.
It also cracks down on public officials who refuse to pay their ethics fines - allowing the commission to garnish wages - and strengthens conflict of interest laws and disclosures.
Under the tax break bill, manufacturers would not have to pay a sales tax on equipment purchased in a three-year period beginning in April 2014.
The measure is expected to cost the state $366 million in tax revenue and there are no job creation requirements or other accountability measures, a concern for some lawmakers.
"We're going to give them a three-year tax break without them having to show any of those things?" asked Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who voted against the legislation.
Clemens pointed out that Florida already provides a tax break for manufacturers that demonstrate 5 percent productivity gains, but it is rarely utilized. Supporters of Scott's plan said it will prompt more manufacturers to expand because the incentive program requires less paperwork.
"There are performance measures in the current law and, as someone said, people are not taking advantage of it. They're paperwork averse," said Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange.
Citing figures from the state Department of Economic Opportunity, Hukill said there are 18,000 manufacturers in Florida employing 300,000 people.
"This is in recognition of the vital importance that manufacturing plays in our economy," Hukill said of the incentive.
The alimony bill wasn't a priority for legislative leaders, although a large majority of lawmakers backed the measure and Scott's decision to veto the bill may resonate more strongly among Floridians than the other actions taken Wednesday.
With passionate pleas for and against the measure flooding his office, Scott said he rejected the proposal because of the provision allowing some ex-spouses to retroactively change their alimony agreements.
Scott said it could "result in unfair, unanticipated results."
"Current Florida law already provides for the adjustment of alimony under the proper circumstances," Scott wrote in his veto letter. "The law also ensures that spouses who have sacrificed their careers to raise a family do not suffer financial catastrophe upon divorce and that the lower earning spouse and stay-at-home parent will not be financially punished. Floridians have relied on this system post-divorce and planned their lives accordingly."
The bill would have eliminated permanent alimony and would have made it more difficult for alimony awards in marriages lasting less than 11 years. It also would have mandated a 50-50 child custody arrangement.
The family law section of The Florida Bar, which opposed the bill, called Scott's decision "courageous."
"Senate Bill 718 would have left many women with diminished means, depriving them of their vested contractual rights that their ex-spouses agreed to,'' Carin Porras, chairwoman of the family law section, said in a statement.