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Session closes with tax cuts, 62 farewells

The $50.9-billion budget has something for everyone, including more money for education and at least 20 tax breaks.

By TIM NICKENS and JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- They saved the biggest for last.

On the final day of the legislative session, Florida lawmakers approved a state budget stuffed with more money for education, a half-billion dollars in tax cuts and a new jobs development initiative.

They imposed a death sentence on the panel that oversees state universities, adopted the first statewide building code and eliminated auto emissions testing.

The House adjourned at 7:21 p.m. and the Senate about five minutes later, although not with the smooth ending and good feelings of recent years. The House left the Senate still working after a dispute involving tax breaks for parimutuels and the size of beer bottles.

"A few dogs, a few horses and a few drinks. That's what people think we do out here," said Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando. "Please tell them about education."

As the sun set outside the Capitol, the Bellamy Brothers played at a celebration hosted by supporters of term limits, which are forcing 62 legislators into retirement.

After filling much of the past several days with goodbye speeches and backroom negotiations, legislators shifted into high gear Friday.

The $50.9-billion state budget approved unanimously by the Legislature includes something for everyone -- dramatic spending increases for education and transportation, two new law schools and a new medical school, and at least 20 tax breaks.

Shoppers would win a tax-free week, July 29 through Aug. 6, on clothing purchases of $100 or less. Investors will get a second cut in as many years on the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds, worth more than $240-million a year. Hospitals, developers, parimutuels and a handful of printers also would be the beneficiaries of narrowly drawn tax breaks.

So many breaks were tossed around Friday that even Gov. Jeb Bush said he lost track. He said he would review each one, and offered a one-word response to a question about the more than $20-million in tax cuts for greyhound tracks and other parimutuels: "ruff."

Most of the tax breaks were assembled in several large bills, so-called trains, that sometimes even the legislators couldn't explain.

"As your engineer on this train," Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, told Jennings Friday afternoon, "I feel like I jumped off the train at some point. This is probably like the last train leaving Paris in World War II. Everybody is jumping on as fast as they can."

The train left the track late Friday afternoon as Republicans rushed to meet their self-imposed 6 p.m. adjournment.

In the Senate, Republicans thought Thrasher would not go home without tax breaks for parimutuels because of his friendship with a greyhound track owner in Jacksonville. They linked that issue with a bid to eliminate the restrictions on the size of beer bottles, a pet issue for Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

But Lee was surprised when the parimutuel tax breaks arrived in the Senate connected to a cut on the per drink tax at bars and restaurants worth almost $40-million. And when Lee tried to add the beer bottle issue, he threw the Senate into turmoil.

After harsh words on the Senate floor, the stalement ended with Jennings and Thrasher talking by telephone as time slipped away and a crowd gathered in the rotunda. "The speaker wants to know if you all want the dogs and the beer tax without the bottles," Jennings told the Senate.

The answer was yes, but not before some cross words about the House.

"I was tricked," Lee complained.

Public education spending will rise by more than $1-billion, enough to give teachers raises of up to 6 percent. There are new law schools for Florida A&M and Florida International University in Miami, and a new medical school for Florida State University.

"These will be the institutions that will create the next generation of engineers, teachers, computer whiz kids and entrepreneurs," House Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said of the additional money earmarked for higher education.

Millions in additional dollars also are earmarked for a 10-year plan to speed road construction in areas ranging from Interstate 75 in the Tampa Bay area to Interstate 95 on the East Coast. There is also $300-million in bonds for buying sensitive lands, and more money for health care for low-income children.

"We spread it around to a lot of folks," said Sen. Tom Rossin, D-West Palm Beach, While Republicans boast that there are no tax increases, there will be tuition increases of up to 5 percent at community colleges and state universities. Motor vehicle owners also will start paying $1 more to renew license tags.

The soaring economy enabled state legislators to have the best of both worlds: increasing spending while offering tax breaks.

There were several high-profile proposals that did not survive.

Jennings, who is running for insurance commissioner, and Majority Leader Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor blocked the effort to turn public lands along rivers and lakes back to private property owners. "She exhibited a lot of courage," Latvala said, referring to the agriculture lobbyists and other special interests who backed the bill. "She's running statewide, and those people give a lot of money."

House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, also suggested Jennings' campaign affected her judgment in a way he didn't appreciate. Thrasher supported the submerged lands bill and is not running for office this year.

"The fact that I am not running for another office helped me make better decisions ... about policy," Thrasher said.

Among the other issues that died: an attempt to weaken growth management laws, efforts to change the makeup and reduce the power of the state Supreme Court, tax breaks for a new stadium for the Florida Marlins, the right for patients to sue health maintenance organizations and an overhaul of insurance regulation.

As expected, the Legislature did approve Friday an overhaul of education that includes forcing the 14-member Board of Regents out of business in 2003 unless they convince lawmakers otherwise. Instead of one board overseeing the state's 10 public universities, each school will have its own board of trustees.

There will be separate chancellors for public education, community colleges and universities. They will report to one education commissioner, who will be appointed by a new board of education appointed by the governor.

In a week of goodbyes, the Senate saluted Jennings in the final hour of the session. She was given 39 red roses, one for each of the senators, and a white rose for the staff.

Jennings, who now heads off on her first campaign for statewide office, offered advice to those senators who weren't given time to praise her.

"In lieu of anything you'd like to say," she said after wiping her eyes, "maybe you'd like to say it in your district."

-- Staff writer William Yardley contributed to this report.

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