TALLAHASSEE – The Florida House of Representatives embarrassed itself this week by ramming through a tax-cut that turns one of Gov. Rick Scott's top legislative priorities into potential litigation fodder.
The last thing the governor and Legislature needed was a "feel-good" session fueled by surplus cash devolving into name-calling and more court fights. Scott and lawmakers are batting about .150 in the courts.
Even House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, called it "not our finest hour."
Democrats started the fight, insisting Tuesday that every bill be read in full as a way to protest a policy decision the chamber had already debated and decided – refusing to tap $51 billion in federal dollars to expand health coverage to some 1 million low-income Floridians.
That's the Democrats' right under the rules. But it came across as sanctimonious for a party still hugely in the minority, and agitated what had previously been a mostly bipartisan session. Democrats seemed unwilling to accept that elections and majorities matter.
But after two days of a mechanical software program named "Mary" reading bills, Republicans decided to short-circuit the process late Wednesday by unilaterally cramming through a 96-page tax bill without a bit of debate.
Lawmakers needed to get the bill to Scott to avoid a veto of campaign-finance legislation that was a Weatherford priority.
That's their right, too. But it shows that "transparency" in Tallahassee becomes secondary when political objectives are at stake.
"We invoked a constitutional privilege that's there for both sides to protect us from what you are trying to do right now," complained Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. "It's outrageous. It's improper, and in my opinion it borders on unethical."
The result actually raises some serious legal questions.
The 68-48 vote for HB 7007 was 12 votes short of the two-thirds majority that the Florida Constitution requires when the Legislature is "enacting, amending, or repealing any general law if the anticipated effect" is to reduce the percentage of a state tax shared with counties and cities. The manufacturers' tax-cut would trim some $30 million from local governments' annual revenue.
House staffers said a day later that the Constitution was ambiguous about whether the two-thirds majority applied.
Weatherford's office combed through two decades of votes and could find only one other time -- a sales-tax holiday in 2001 -- when the Legislature passed a tax-cutting bill without a two-thirds majority in both chambers. That tax cut went unchallenged, and there is no case law establishing the ground rules for when the super-majority is required.
But the Senate's staff analysis of the tax-cut piece of the bill states unequivocally that because of a potential $13-million impact next year, "This bill requires passage by 2/3 of the membership of each chamber."
Asked by a reporter, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, demurred about whether the House vote was constitutional. "I'm not a constitutional lawyer," he said.
Part of the plan to get around the two-thirds requirement was to delay the tax cut until April 2014, so it has no immediate impact, and lawmakers will be able to come back next year and fix it if a court strikes it down.
Tax cuts are broadly popular, and Weatherford is clearly banking on not drawing a legal challenge.
"Who would sue to stop a tax cut and prevent job creation in Florida?" the speaker said in a statement after the vote.
So, one ethos remains constant in Tallahassee: Might makes right.
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