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Tax Package Approved After Charter School Fight

Florida Capitol
Michael Rivera

After a battle about the issue, a proposal to distribute voter-approved local money to charter schools landed back in a tax package that the House and Senate passed late Friday.

The package (HB 7123), which is heading to Gov. Ron DeSantis, would provide $121 million in tax breaks. It would offer some tax relief for farmers hammered by Hurricane Michael, provide popular sales-tax “holidays” on back-to-school items and hurricane supplies and reduce a sales-tax rate on commercial leases.

But the charter school issue drew controversy before the bill passed in an 81-25 vote in the House and a 23-17 vote in the Senate.

The issue involves the use of property tax dollars that some county voters have approved in referendums for schools --- and whether that money should be shared with charter schools.

The House pushed to require providing portions of the money to charter schools. But in a compromise, the final version of the bill made such a requirement apply to future referendums, rather than money that has already been approved by voters.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who carried the tax package in the Senate, defended the charter school proposal. She said charter schools, which receive public funding but are typically run by private operators, are public schools.

“I’d hate for me as a taxpayer to have a referendum on the ballot, and my kids are going to a charter school, and I’m paying the taxes and those dollars do not go to my child’s public school, because someone’s picked it out and said it’s a charter school,” Stargel said.

But Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the Senate was being forced to accept the charter school funding language in a tax bill that has a “lot of good stuff.”

“We keep giving more and more to the charters, and we just don’t quite keep up with what we give to the traditional public schools,” Farmer said.

The push by the House to include charter schools in the tax-relief package stemmed, at least in part, from recently filed litigation over a Palm Beach County referendum that excluded charter schools and scrutiny of language in a Miami-Dade County referendum.

The Senate on Thursday removed the charter-school issue from the tax bill. That led to negotiations to limit the charter-school funding proposal to future referendums.

The end product focused on referendums that will be held after July 1 and would require counties to negotiate with charter schools the distribution of approved tax dollars.

The tax package also offers a seven-day “holiday” at the start of this year’s hurricane season to allow residents to avoid paying sales taxes on supplies such as batteries costing $30 or less, tarps costing $50 or less, self-powered radios costing $50 or less and generators costing $750 or less.

The holiday would be held from May 31 through June 6, as hurricane season starts June 1.

From Aug. 2 to Aug. 6, shoppers would get a sales-tax holiday to help prepare for the new school year, with sales taxes lifted on clothes costing $60 or less, school supplies costing $15 or less and personal computers costing $1,000 or less.

The package also would reduce a sales tax on commercial leases from 5.7 percent to 5.5 percent. The House has wanted to reduce it to 5.35 percent.

Also, the Senate on Thursday added a plan to assist farmers affected by Hurricane Michael, which caused massive damage in October in Northwest Florida.

The proposal would provide refunds on taxes paid for fuel used between Oct. 10, 2018 and June 30, 2019 for agricultural shipments and to haul hurricane debris in Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Bay, Jackson, Calhoun, Gulf, Gadsden, Liberty, Franklin, Leon and Wakulla counties.

Farmers could also get refunds on taxes for repairs made to farm buildings and fencing damaged by the storm.

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