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What's good for business was mostly what passed

Also, lawmakers killed several bills that business opposed, including one blocking suits against HMOs.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- As Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, walked out of the Senate chamber Friday night, a well wisher stopped him.

"You did well," he told Latvala, the Senate majority leader. "You all passed some good stuff and not too much bad stuff."

The state's business lobbyists would agree. The Florida Legislature gave business almost everything it wanted: a new public-private agency for work force development, continued phaseout of the intangibles tax and more money for roads and schools.

And in a victory for the insurance industry, the Legislature passed a statewide building code that will require builders of new homes in coastal areas to include storm shutters or impact-resistant windows.

But just as important, legislators killed several bills that business opposed, notably one that would have allowed patients to sue HMOs.

"We had bipartisan support for almost all of our issues," said Steve Liner, vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "This session finished a lot of things that the governor started last year."

Gov. Jeb Bush, a former real estate developer, supports the work force initiative and building code. It is doubtful he will veto much pro-business legislation, though last year he vetoed some tax breaks that didn't have statewide impact.

A number of industries were included in this year's $500-million package of tax cuts. If Bush agrees, silicon technology facilities, like other manufacturers, will get sales-tax exemptions on equipment. Hospitals no longer will pay a tax on revenues. And greyhound tracks will get a break.

In the biggest move, the Legislature eliminated the intangibles tax on accounts receivable for businesses while reducing the tax on individuals. The intangibles tax reductions total $267-million, according to Florida Tax Watch. The tax on individuals, levied on personal investments, was reduced to $1 per $1,000, down from $1.50. This was the second step toward eliminating it, and the Legislature may finish the job next year.

Though it would be hard to find anyone who supported the intangibles tax, some worry that other pro-business initiatives won't help all Floridians.

Labor unions worry that the new Workforce Florida Inc., which is taking many functions of the Department of Labor, won't do enough to find jobs for hard-to-employ Floridians.

And consumer advocates think patients should have the right to sue HMOs.

Still, there was one major victory for consumers. The Legislature capped interest rates on title loans at 30 percent for the first $2,000 of the loan. Loan amounts above that would have lower rates.

Perhaps the worst news for business was the lack of support for economic development incentives designed to attract companies. The budget gives only $2.6-million to a fund for big projects and doesn't include any new money for a tax-incentive program used extensively in Hillsborough County.

Still, legislators were crowing about what they did for business. "We did just about everything we set out to do," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

So what's left for next year?

The big fight on the consumer front may be over the rates charged by payday lenders, who give consumers loans until they get their paychecks. A move to cap the rates went nowhere this year, though, and the payday industry has a powerful group of big-name lobbyists, such as Ron Book, Martha Barnett and Curt Kiser.

The Florida Chamber and the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business group, will push for changes in how the Legislature requires companies to provide certain types of health care coverage.

And Associated Industries of Florida, another powerful business group, wants to change how workers' compensation lawyers are paid. Jon Shebel, AIF's president, says paying those lawyers by the hour encourages them to drag cases out.

But Shebel wasn't thinking about any of that Saturday. Just after the session ended Friday night, he left town to go fishing off the Bahamian island of Bimini.

"I don't really care if I catch anything," said Shebel, talking by cellular phone from his boat. "It got pretty hectic the past two weeks. Right now, I'm just glad to be away from Tallahassee."

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