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Tax holiday, car seats among other provisions


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Stumbling toward the finish, the Florida Legislature on Friday night approved popular tax cuts and a $48-billion state budget that features modest spending increases for education and one-time bonuses for teachers.

TALLAHASSEE -- Stumbling toward the finish, the Florida Legislature on Friday night approved popular tax cuts and a $48-billion state budget that features modest spending increases for education and one-time bonuses for teachers.

Lawmakers also voted to require children under 9 years old and less than 4-feet-9, to use booster seats in cars. It is uncertain whether Gov. Jeb Bush will allow to bill to become law.

The long list of legislative accomplishments on the last day of the 60-day session included sweeping election changes that include replacing punch card machines. Lawmakers also overhauled the state civil service system, enacted nursing home reforms and changed the way judicial candidates are screened.

Legislation that died on the vine included workers compensation reforms and an effort to help the Florida Marlins raise money for a new stadium in Miami. Also apparently dead was Bush's growth management proposal to require enough classrooms to be in place before new housing developments.

The end of the session wasn't pretty.

The Senate adjourned at 8:58 p.m., two minutes before its rules require it to stop doing business. Republicans who control the chamber could have waived the rules but never asked Democrats to agree to it.

That left the House still working late Friday night, putting it in a take-it-or-leave it position. House Speaker Tom Feeney fumed, and a packed rotunda waited in vain for the traditional closing ceremony of a dropped handkerchief.

It marked the first time in years that the House and Senate have not ended the session together. The separate adjournments underscored the difficulty the more conservative House and the more moderate Senate have had in finding common ground throughout the past two months.

"We got too much negotiation too late," Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said after the Senate adjourned. "By the time it started to break free, there wasn't enough time to make it happen."

Feeney and Senate President John McKay spent much of Friday in the political equivalent of a stare-down, refusing to move each other's priorities.

Restless, House members began mooing as Rep. Nancy Argenziano rose to speak. The Dunnellon Republican sent 25 pounds of cow manure to a lobbyist earlier this week.

"I'll deliver 25 pounds of muck to you tomorrow," the Dunnellon Republican joked to her colleagues.

"We're not doing that anymore," Feeney responded.

The $175-million in tax breaks include another tax-free shopping holiday and another reduction in the intangibles tax on stocks, bonds and other investments.

The tax-free shopping holiday will run from July 28 through Aug. 5 on sales of clothing of $50 or less and school supplies of $10 or less.

Instead of cutting the intangibles tax rate, lawmakers agreed to raise the exemption from the current $20,000 to $250,000 of value for individuals and from the current $40,000 to $500,000 of value for couples. Businesses would also win a new $250,000 exemption.

About 700,000 taxpayers will be no longer have to pay the intangibles tax.

The state budget for 2001-2002 includes a 4 percent per student increase in spending and an $850 bonus for teachers.

There is $60-million in new money for nursing home reforms, $5-million to continue development of new law schools for Florida A&M in Orlando and Florida International University in Miami, and $4.5-million to start planning for a bullet train approved by voters last year.

University students would see a tuition increase of 7.5 percent, while community college students would see a 3.5 percent tuition increase.

Republicans said it was a difficult budget year with slowing tax revenues and soaring Medicaid costs. They said they still were able avoid some of the deepest proposed cuts in health care for the poor.

"We've stretched money further than I ever thought we could stretch it," said King, the Senate majority leader.

But Democrats complained the budget provides no new money to raise teacher salaries, reduce class sizes or improve pre-kindergarten programs. They also disliked the college tuition increase.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Rossin, D-Royal Palm Beach, said legislators did their best with the money available. But he said lawmakers were left in a hole by Bush's original spending plan, which he called "irresponsible."

The fate of a new, 11th state university, New College in Sarasota, was in doubt.

So was a bid to give greater autonomy to the University of South Florida's branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, and to allow St. Petersburg Junior College to be the first community college in Florida to award four-year degrees.

In other action, the Legislature:

Approved an overhaul of the state's civil service system that removes more than 16,000 state jobs from the career service system. Law enforcement officers, firefighters and nurses will be exempt from the changes.

The bill also will give governors more discretion to replace all managers and supervisors.

Placed a constitutional amendment on the November 2002 ballot that would add the death penalty to the state Constitution and change the protection against "cruel or unusual punishment" to "cruel and unusual punishment."

Voters approved the same amendment in 1998, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned it last fall by ruling that the ballot language was misleading.

Approved criteria for determining whether a person sentenced to death is mentally retarded. If the person meets the requirements, including demonstrating they suffer from a lifelong condition, they would be protected from a death sentence. Florida would become the 14th state with such a provision.

Rejected a bid to allow Miami voters to decide whether to extend an existing parking surcharge to help finance a new stadium for the Florida Marlins. The House approved the plan, but the Senate adjourned without taking it up.

- Staff writers Adam C. Smith, Lucy Morgan and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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