BRADENTON, Fla. – Florida could join 15 other states that make it harder for their lawmakers to increase taxes and fees by requiring supermajority votes.
And Gov. Rick Scott, in his final year in office, has doubled the chances that voters get to decide the issue this year by placing the restriction on a dual path for potential approval.
Proposals that would require a supermajority vote to raise taxes and fees, instead of a simple majority, are pending before the Republican-led Legislature as well as a commission considering amendments to the state’s constitution.
Scott told the Legislature in a joint opening session Jan. 9 that they should take steps to enact the voting requirement because there will be future lawmakers “who are not as fiscally responsible as we are today.”
“I am sure there will be people who hold our jobs down the road who will want to increase taxes, otherwise known as taking more money from hard working Floridians,” Scott said. “I want 2018 to be the year that Florida voters pass a constitutional amendment that makes it harder for politicians to raise taxes.”
The same day House Journal Resolution 7001, a measure called “Supermajority Vote for State Taxes or Fees,” sailed through the House Appropriations Committee on a 20-8 vote. It’s now headed for a floor vote.
A similar measure awaits a Senate hearing, and the state’s Constitution Revision Commission – where 34 of 37 members were appointed by Republicans - is on a parallel track to approve a matching proposal.
“Some have asked if this proposal would be in effect during a financial emergency or another national recession, and my answer is clear – absolutely,” Scott said. “It is during times of economic downturn where this proposal is needed the most. It will force leaders to contemplate living within their means rather than taking the easy way out and just sticking it to the public by raising taxes on families and job creators.”
In addition to taxes and fees, the more restrictive voting requirement would apply to decreasing or eliminating a state tax or fee exemption or credits. That means, for example, that none of the more than 200 exemptions from the state sales tax could be eliminated without a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
Florida, which does not have a personal income tax, relies on sales tax revenue for most of the state budget’s funding.
The voting measure could also prevent lawmakers from increasing fees that support state universities and higher education.
“I don’t think it’s right for us to be tying the hands of future Legislatures,” Rep. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, said in the Jan. 9 House committee meeting, explaining why she would vote no.
Berman said that members of the public tell lawmakers when they have a problem with a tax proposal and, she added, “I think the voters have the ability to vote people out when they see problems, and I don’t think we need this legislation.”
The Senate’s version, SJR 1742, has yet to be scheduled for hearings by the appropriations subcommittee on finance and tax and the full appropriations committee.
If both chambers agree on wording, the proposed amendment will go on the ballot in November. To pass, 60% of voters must approve it.
The voting proposal is among 3,079 bills filed for this year’s 60-day session, which began earlier than usual Jan. 9 because this is a major election year. Incumbent lawmakers on the ballot can’t pursue donations until the session is over March 9.
With Scott barred from a third term, 26 candidates have opened campaign accounts to run for governor so far. In the Senate, 20 out of 40 seats are on the ballot, and all 120 House seats are up for grabs. The qualifying period is June 18-22.
Scott has endorsed another record budget for the state, proposing a $87.4 billion spending plan for fiscal 2019. He has signed record budgets into law the past five fiscal years.
Tax cuts, which he has estimated to cost $180 million because they include sales tax holidays for school supplies and hurricane preparedness, are being sought.
Scott’s final budget represents a $2.5 billion or nearly 3% increase over current appropriations, although some lawmakers have suggested they will not approve that much spending.
If lawmakers don't approve measures requiring tougher voting requirements, the state Constitution Revision Commission is considering its own.
The CRC, a body convened every 20 years to examine constitutional proposals for Florida voters to consider, will soon contemplate Proposal 72.
P 72 was passed by the CRC’s finance and tax committee on a 5-0 vote Dec. 12, sending it to the full commission.
It would also require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to authorize a new state tax or fee, in addition to requiring a supermajority vote to raise any existing state tax or fee.
Committee Chairman Fred Karlinsky, a Scott appointee to the CRC, said he proposed the measure because the state has seen seven years of “unprecedented” growth stemming from 75 actions taken by the governor and the Legislature to pass more than $7 billion in tax cuts.
The state, he said, will not always have the same governor and Legislature.
“There are 15 states currently that have some type of supermajority required to pass a tax increase,” said Karlinsky, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig. “This proposal, Proposal 72, would put Florida on par with…other states that require a supermajority to pass any taxes.”
Republicans may be using the constitution to lock in policies they'll have trouble protecting through the electoral process, amid a sudden demographic shift.
"A wild card is the influx of as many as hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to Florida following Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the island," Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics wrote last week. "Democrats could reap benefits if they can get some of these American citizens to register and go to the polls later this year."
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, lawmakers in 15 states are subject to various voting restrictions over budgets and tax increases.
The voting requirements have implemented in state statutes or by amending state constitutions, the NCSL said on its website.
“Although they are not spending limits in the traditional sense, requirements for a supermajority vote - two-thirds, three-fourths or three-fifths of the legislature - can limit spending decisions if agreement cannot be reached,” the NCSL says.
Terry Golden, policy director for the Florida Policy Institute, an independent think tank, urged the CRC committee to reject the voting restriction “because it would be more difficult to increase revenues when the state really needs them.”
Golden said Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states in the level of support provided for public services and is “dead last” in the level of mental health funding. She pointed out that lawmakers “routinely” sweep revenue into the general fund from a trust that is intended for affordable housing.
The current fiscal environment makes this an especially bad time to impose a supermajority requirement, she said.
“We see congressional changes in the future that promise to push responsibilities and costs from the federal level down to the state level,” Golden said. “Rigid revenue restrictions would create a straightjacket that limits the state’s flexibility in responding to impacts from that changing federal landscape.”
A stricter voting requirement would “hamstring the Legislature’s ability to address the needs of Floridians during economic downturns,” she added.
The proposal also would require a supermajority vote to reduce or eliminate state tax exemptions and credits, tax preferences that Golden said total more than $18 billion.
Karlinsky, responding to a question, said the stricter voting requirement also would pertain to universities and their fees.
“One of the things that really resonated with me was when Gov. Scott was being inaugurated for his first term [and] he made the comment that government can only give back to you that which has already been taken from you.”
The proposal, he said, “does nothing more than ask the Legislature to be very circumspect when they are raising taxes.”
“We have the ability to continue the last seven years of good fiscal responsibility by the state,” he said, urging the committee to vote for the proposal.
Committee Vice Chairman Tom Grady, also appointed to the CRC by Scott, said the supermajority voting requirement is “precisely the kind of proposal that we ought to be forwarding to the full commission because it’s looking at state government and our people” from the 40-foot level.
“This is a much higher level proposal particularly in hard times if taxes are going to be raised,” Grady said.
The CRC is reviewing hundreds of potential constitutional amendments, some proposed by individual commissioners. The public sent in 782 suggestions for the panel to review.
If the full commission passes P 72, it would go straight onto the November ballot. It would also require 60% of the vote to pass.