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Tax breaks, but not for nuclear plants

The House gives initial approval to much of a $500-million tax cut plan.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- State lawmakers on Thursday quietly killed a controversial proposal to give the companies that run the state's three nuclear power plants a multimillion dollar tax break.

The proposal, pushed by Florida Power & Light Co., was inserted into a bill and passed out of a committee earlier this month with no discussion or analysis.

But the state's property appraisers were vehemently opposed, saying counties across the state stood to lose in excess of $30-million in annual property taxes if the bill became law. The hardest hit would have been Florida counties where nuclear plans are located: Citrus, Miami-Dade and St. Lucie.

With little explanation, Rep. George Albright, the Republican chairman of the Finance & Taxation Committee that initially approved the plan, killed it on Thursday as the House preliminarily approved the majority of its $500-million tax cut package.

"This has been a big issue," Albright said simply. "It's just not ripe."

That's an understatement.

Property appraisers across the state have been blasting the plan as a narrowly written special interest tax break that benefits the state's investor-owned electric utilities at the expense of the regular property taxpayer.

If the bill had become law, property appraisers said that property owners in counties across the state would have seen their tax bills rise to make up for lost revenues or faced steep budget cuts to schools and other local services.

Citrus County alone estimated it stood to lose $1.8-million in tax revenues. St. Lucie County estimated its loss at more than $10-million. Surprisingly, it was a St. Lucie County Republican lawmaker who sponsored the proposal.

When Rep. Ken Pruitt was asked about it by the Times last week, he said he never intended to hurt his county and would delete the language if the property appraisers were correct in their assessment.

Powerful interests with big money to donate to campaigns were behind the measure. The big winners would have been Florida Power & Light Co. and Florida Power Corp., which own Florida's nuclear plants. TECO Energy Inc. and Gulf Power Co. might have also benefited to a far lesser extent from a separate provision in the proposal.

The companies and property appraisers have been involved in extensive litigation over the way tangible personal property such as electric plants and power lines are taxed. Property appraisers said Pruitt's proposal would have settled the dispute in the utilities favor.

"If the property appraisers would rather be in court litigating, wasting the taxpayers' money, that's up to them," Pruitt said. "I'll let their constituents deal with them."

Larry Levy, a lobbyist for the property appraisers, said Thursday that he was "glad that something very bad did not happen."

"Every now and then, the little people are successful," he said. "This never should have gotten in there in the first place, with no discussion and nobody paying attention."

Also Thursday, House lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a host of other tax breaks. Among the breaks debated were sales tax breaks for diapers and car seats, a cut to the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds, a tax cut for hospitals, a back-to-school sales tax free holiday for clothing from July 29 to Aug. 6, and a reduction in the impact fees that developers pay counties.

The Republican-controlled House easily fought off Democratic amendments. One would have shortened the sales tax holiday and instead put money into mental health services. Democrats also tried to target the intangibles tax cut to those with less money.

Afterward, Democrats charged that Republicans voted to "keep 250,000 taxpaying Floridians ... on the tax rolls."

House Speaker John Thrasher said the Republican plan would totally eliminate the intangibles tax for all Floridians by next year. "That trumps" what the Democrats wanted to do, Thrasher said.

Both the Republican-controlled House and Senate have agreed to cut $500-million in taxes this year. But both have different ideas on which taxes to cut and are trying to work out a compromise this week.

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