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Health Still An Issue As House Passes $700M Budget

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Taxes on everything from cellphones to college textbooks and gun club memberships would either be cut or eliminated under a nearly $700 million package of tax breaks overwhelmingly approved by the Florida House on Thursday.

The legislation including the roughly two-dozen tax breaks heads next to the Florida Senate, which so far has been reluctant to endorse any tax cuts amid an ongoing standoff over the budget. The two chambers are roughly $4 billion apart due to a divide over health care and whether the state should accept federal aid to help provide health coverage to 800,000 Floridians.

But Republicans in the House contended that despite the budget stalemate the tax cuts will help Florida's economy.

"One of the best ways to have a vibrant economy is to put money right back in the pockets of taxpayers," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach and one of the main architects of the tax cut package.

The tax breaks tucked into the House bill range from familiar ones such as a three-day back to school sales tax holiday to specific ones such as sparing school booster groups from paying taxes for concessions.

The biggest part of the $690 million package is a reduction in the taxes now charged on cellphones and cable television. The proposed cut would save the average Floridian about $40 a year.

A cut in the tax known officially as the "communication services tax" is one of this year's top priorities for Gov. Rick Scott. The bill also contains Scott's push to exempt the sale of college textbooks from state sales taxes.

Most Democrats supported the bill (HB 7141) on Thursday, but they had questioned the tax break for gun club membership and a proposed July 4 sales tax holiday where sales taxes would not be charged on guns or ammunition.

The bill passed by a vote of 112-3. House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said he could not support setting aside that much money for tax cuts when legislators aren't spending enough to help the elderly and those with disabilities who remain on waiting lists for services.

The tax cut bill still has an uncertain future.

That's because Senate leaders have said they won't talk about cutting taxes until they figure out what to do about health care spending in the state budget. Senate Republicans are concerned that Florida is going to lose more than $1 billion that is now provided to hospitals to treat the poor and uninsured. That's part of the reason the Senate has proposed drawing down money that is linked to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

Senate President Andy Gardiner said this week if Florida loses the money as expected "it's a big hole." But Gardiner added the Senate isn't ruling out tax cuts and could still wind up passing as much as $800 million worth.

Sen. Tom Lee, the Senate budget chief, said that there has been little movement between the House and Senate. He said Thursday he expect legislators to have to extend their regular session past the May 1 date, or hold a special session to pass a new state budget.