Florida Republicans Focus on Tax Cuts, Education

 

As Republicans take over Florida government for the first time since Reconstruction, the talk is all of tax cuts and education.

The GOP now controls both houses of the legislature, the governor's office and the elected state cabinet a first for any southern state. It is out to make a good impression, and ready to do something voters will remember.

House Speaker John Thrasher says the planned tax cuts are likely to be the largest ever granted in the state's history. Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed a $1.2 million tax relief package that includes a property tax cut and a $50 reduction of utility bills.

Tax relief and education initiatives form twin centerpieces of the new governor's first budget, which was being unveiled Tuesday. Bush's lieutenant governor, former Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, is taking a significant role in crafting his education policies.

Democrats in the legislature, who are greatly outnumbered by Republicans, are likely to oppose most tax relief proposals. They say they would rather see the money go into education and social services programs where the state's needs are not being met.

Children need textbooks and the social workers who protect the state's most vulnerable children need more money, the Democrats say. Republicans don't disagree, but also say Floridians need tax breaks.

Bush's move to grant tax relief and increase the money the state spends on education and protecting its children will be made easier this year because of a windfall the state is getting from its settlement of a lawsuit against the nation's tobacco companies.

The settlement will give Florida an additional $3.7-billion over the next five years money that comes at the same time the state's economy has shown healthy enough growth to produce an unexpected $1.3-billion increase in tax collections.

Bush and legislative leaders want to create an endowment named for former Gov. Lawton Chiles, who died three weeks before he was to leave office. A $1.1-billion first year contribution will grow to $2-billion and fund programs for children health, child welfare and programs for senior citizens if legislators approve the plan.

The shape of this year's tax breaks remains to be determined. One of last year's tax breaks is likely to be continued a proposal that lifts all sales taxes on clothing purchases of $50 or less during a one week period in August when Florida's children are getting ready to return to the classroom.

Legislators are also looking at eliminating a $100-million surcharge on alcoholic beverages. The "by the drink" tax has been enormously unpopular with restaurant and bar owners around the state.

There is broad support among Republican legislators for school vouchers, but many observers expect Democratic opposition to force a compromise that will see vouchers only in inner city areas where schools are failing.

Teacher unions strenuously oppose vouchers, saying they believe putting public money into private schools will seriously jeopardize the state's public schools.

Legislators are also moving ahead with a school readiness program that would establish entry standards for kindergarten students. Similar legislation was offered by Republican leaders in the house last year but failed after a proposal to use tax dollars to send children to private day care programs was attached. This year the readiness proposal is moving through committees without the controversial voucher provision.

Lawmakers are also taking a hard look at the state lottery.

Late last year outgoing Lottery Secretary Marcia Mann agreed to take Florida into Powerball, the multi state lottery game that is now available in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Other large states, including Texas, have rejected the game because its weekly drawing competes head-to-head with Saturday night Lotto drawings that are typically the biggest money raisers a lottery can have.

Bush has temporarily derailed the multi-state plan while his transition chief examines its impact, but legislators say they may pass a law that forbids multi-state games if the governor allows it to proceed.

Democrats and Common Cause, the citizen's lobby, are calling for campaign finance reforms that would end the flow of soft money into campaigns before the 2000 elections when term limits that restrict state leaders to eight years in office will bring a mass exodus of legislators and other office holders.

Senate President Toni Jennings wants to cap individual contributions to political parties at $5,000. The absence of limits on party contributions resulted in an unprecedented spending spree during the 1998 elections, but Republicans in the legislature seem reluctant to change the rules now that they are in control.

Democrats see Jennings' proposal as an opportunity to drive a wedge in Republican ranks. They are supporting the cap, setting the stage for a high profile squabble.

 
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