Business

Proclaiming Success in Legislative Session, Business Groups to Focus on Elections

By: Jim Turner | Posted: March 13, 2012 3:55 AM
With a successful legislative session now in the rear-view mirror and the state’s biggest business lobbying groups awaiting the governor’s signature on the bills they backed, attention is shifting to this year’s election cycle.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce soon will release its annual "How They Voted" publication -- a legislative report card that grades each member of the Florida Legislature on his or her pro-jobs, pro-business legislative action.

“With the conclusion of the regular session, we continue to focus our attention to the 2012 election cycle by evaluating each legislator’s grade on our report card, interviewing nearly every House and Senate candidate, and fundraising to elect pro-business candidates,” said Marian Johnson, senior vice president of political operations for the Florida Chamber.

Associated Industries of Florida will also release a 2012 session wrap-up publication in coming weeks, with its own annual voting records report.

Both guides will serve as primers for candidates in the fall.

Meanwhile, the Chamber, Associated Industries of Florida, theFlorida Restaurant and Lodging Association and other business advocates are touting what they say has been an extremely successful legislative session.

Tom Feeney, AIF president and CEO, called the session an “incredible year for AIF members and for the business community."

“Working in partnership with Governor Scott, legislative leaders and other policymakers, AIF helped to drive Florida forward by passing legislation that will enable our citizens, our businesses and our economy to thrive,” Feeney said in a prepared statement. “A business-friendly climate is vital to a healthy economy and robust job market. Florida’s lawmakers clearly understand that connection and their efforts this session are to be commended.”

Unlike the Chamber, AIF was a backer of the failed effort to create a statewide gaming commission and allow the construction of mega-casinos.

The Chamber, which vigorously opposed the casino push, reported 25 other Chamber-backed bills and items were approved, along with the $70 billion budget that included not a single new tax, higher fee, new regulation or union-backed mandate.

“Businesses throughout Florida have been facing an $817 million unemployment tax increase,” stated Anthony Connelly, Florida Chamber board of directors' chairman, and senior vice president and chief financial officer of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. "The Florida Chamber’s efforts on unemployment compensation tax reform will save Florida’s business community nearly $550 million over two years.”

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association also applauded legislators for opposing destination resort casinos -- which some feared would increase competition to existing businesses without increasing tourists -- and an online travel tax that was seen as a benefit for online travel companies to the detriment of local hoteliers and governments.

“Our 10,000 members were active and engaged in the legislative process and issues, which impacted their bottom line, and our voices were heard loud and clear this session,” Carol Dover, president/CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, stated in a release.

The immediate next stop for the business groups will be to get their backed legislation signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The following comes directly from Associated Industries of Florida on their legislative highlights:

Environmental

Numeric Nutrient Criteria -- As a leader on Florida’s water future and the driving force behind the Numeric Nutrient Criteria Task Force, AIF guided bipartisan efforts to offer a Florida-friendly solution to create responsible water-quality standards for our state. In a unique partnership with businesses and local and state governments, AIF led the charge to set numeric nutrient criteria based on decades of sound research and, through the task force, continues to work with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to ensure there will be clean water for future generations of Floridians without laying a heavy and unnecessary financial burden on businesses and governments responsible for meeting water-quality standards.

Environmental Permitting -- A high priority for the business community, legislation supported by the DEP will create a statewide environmental resource permitting (ERP) system, which will eliminate duplicate government reviews of permit applications, bring consistency to the permitting process and offer businesses predictable outcomes irrespective of where they are located within the state. In addition, AIF was instrumental in passing a comprehensive reform of the environmental permitting process that will streamline applications and shorten the time frames for businesses to receive a permit.

Taxes

Unemployment Compensation -- AIF worked closely with lawmakers to pass legislation that lessens the unemployment compensation tax increase to a more manageable level so Florida businesses can keep people employed and unemployed Floridians can continue to receive the benefits they need.

Tangible Personal Property Tax Exemption Amendment -- If signed by the governor, and approved by voters, small businesses across the state will benefit from an additional ad valorem tax exemption on tangible personal property valued between $25,000 and $50,000.

Insurance

Personal Injury Protection -- Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, legislation that will help prevent rampant Personal Injury Protection (PIP) fraud and reduce auto insurance premiums for Florida drivers was passed in the final day of session. This was a top priority for AIF and a coalition of groups that have been calling for reform to Florida’s PIP system.

Citizens Property Insurance Assessments -- AIF played a pivotal role in amending property insurance legislation to include protections from potential assessments or “hurricane taxes” for all Florida citizen and business policyholders.

Economic Development

Economic Development Package -- The comprehensive economic development package passed by the Legislature contains a number of issues important to AIF and its members, including the reauthorization of the New Markets Tax Credit program, expansion of the state's corporate income tax exemption, sales tax exemptions that will help grow the state’s manufacturing industry, and incentives for the film, agriculture and aerospace industries.
 
Equally critical to the passage of pro-business legislation is the ability to thwart bad policy that could have a harmful effect on business and industry.

A major victory for Florida’s bricks-and-mortar businesses was the defeat of legislation that would have permanently provided online travel companies with an unfair tax advantage. Florida hoteliers who, for years, have been collecting and remitting occupancy taxes to the state, counties and municipalities will now be on a level playing field with giants like Travelocity. This also closes the door on other wholesale-to-retail businesses seeking a similar market-distorting tax advantage in the Sunshine State.

Additionally, AIF was able to beat back a proposal to force hospitals to contract with smaller health-care plans for Medicaid services. This would have significantly altered last year’s Medicaid reforms and jeopardized savings to the state accomplished through that landmark legislation.

Here is the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s session breakdown:

Destination Resort Casinos -- died in committee. The destination resort casino bill turned out to be one of the most controversial and lobbied this session. SB 710 by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-West Palm Beach, and HB 487 by Rep. Eric Fresen, R-Miami, were filed early in the session with strong support from major casino industry interests. Both pieces of legislation would have brought three Vegas-style casinos to South Florida, requiring a minimum investment of $2 billion in the development and construction of the resorts.

The biggest danger of this legislation was the cannibalization of existing hotels and restaurants, the competition for limited discretionary dollars spent by tourists, and the decades spent to create Florida’s family-friendly image. In the end, Florida’s family-friendly image won out.

Online Travel Companies -- died in committee: For several years now, competing hospitality interests have been at odds both in Florida and across the country over how taxes should be calculated on hotel rooms obtained over the Internet. This issue has appeared before Florida legislators for the past several years and will likely appear again in 2013.

This bill granted online travel companies (OTC), like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, and Orbitz, a special tax advantage, allowing them to pay taxes on the wholesale rate of a hotel room rather than the retail rate. HB 1393 by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, and SB 1888 by Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, would not only have provided an unfair tax advantage to online travel companies, but would also deny local governments much-needed tax revenue.

School Start Date -- died in committee: Each year prior to 2006, many school districts around the state began to push their school year start dates further into the month of August. The inevitable finally happened -- one school district decided to start its school year in July. It was at this point that parents around the state started to complain and the hospitality industry started to notice a reduction in sales and booking. Studies were performed and a significant and disturbing pattern was uncovered.

In 2006, legislation was passed so the school year start date could not begin any sooner than 14 days prior to Labor Day. This was a compromise between parents, businesses and educators. As the 2012 session began, HB 1243 by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis, and SB 1468 by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, were introduced. Both bills would have given school districts the ability to set the school start date at practically any time they please.

On “Florida Tourism Day,” FRLA members had a chance to discuss their concerns with Montford, and as a result amended his bill so that the school start date could not begin prior to Aug.15. The defeat of this bill was the direct result of FRLA members who participated in Tourism Day. The school start date will remain 14 days prior to Labor Day.

Hospitality Education Program (HEP) -- funded: The HEP program helps the hospitality industry grow its work force by producing a pool of certified and immediately employable workers with the proper skill set to be an asset to the industry. The dollars in the trust fund are derived from a $10 license surcharge paid exclusively by Florida’s restaurant and lodging establishments for the sole purpose of funding this important program.

Approximately 21,000 students and 200 high schools participate in the HEP program. The FRLA worked diligently with the governor and legislative leadership to continue to provide the funding necessary to recruit and train the hospitality leaders of tomorrow.

Unemployment Compensation Tax Rate Reduction -- passed: For two years state lawmakers have pushed back significant hikes in the state’s unemployment compensation taxes; however, businesses across the state are scheduled to get a sizable tax rate hike in 2012.

Florida’s trust fund began to deplete in 2009 by skyrocketing unemployment, causing Florida to borrow from the federal government. The taxable wage base was scheduled to increase from $7,000 to $8,500 in 2009, but business groups persuaded the Legislature to delay an increase in the wage base for two years in hopes the economy would turn around and spark new hiring.

This taxation policy change will reduce the unemployment compensation tax increase by almost $50 per employee, saving employers $549 million over two years.

Guaranteed Higher Minimum Wage -- died in committee: Due to the numerous restaurant closures and the cry for help from our members, FRLA took a bold move this legislative session by introducing SB 2106 which was sponsored by the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee. The measure was heard in one committee and later died without further debate.

In 2004, a constitutional amendment was adopted in Florida that immediately raised the minimum wage by $1 per hour and also provided for annual increases in the Florida minimum wage, indexed to inflation.

Under the amendment, however, the Florida minimum wage differs from the federal model as applied to tipped employees. For tipped employees, the amendment permanently set the tip credit at $3.02 per hour. So, regardless of how much an employee actually earns in tips -- e.g., $10 per hour, $20 per hour, etc. -- the direct cash wage paid by the employer always goes up in lockstep with the inflation increases in the Florida minimum wage.

At present, with a $7.67 per hour Florida minimum wage, this means employers must pay a tipped employee at least $4.65 per hour, regardless of how much the employee receives in tips. Again, this compares to only $2.13 per hour under the federal law, which prevails in most other states.

SB 2106 would have allowed the option for an employer to choose an alternative method of paying tipped employees, in which the employer guarantees a wage, including tips, to equal at least 130 percent of the Florida minimum wage, which would currently equate to $9.98 per hour.

For employees who receive a relatively small amount in tips, the employer would end up paying a higher direct cash wage than would be required under the present law. For employees who receive a larger amount in tips, and who are therefore making considerably more than minimum wage, the employer would pay a smaller direct cash wage.

This change would allow restaurants to stabilize their economic positions, remain open, and continue to keep Florida’s No. 1 industry and largest private employer afloat during these tough economic times.

Highlights of Florida Chamber-backed victories include:

Florida Virtual School – HB 7063 by Rep. Stargel and Sen. Gardiner.

Higher Education – SB 1366 by Sen. Gaetz.

Florida Tax Credit Scholarship – HB 859 by Rep. Corcoran and Sen. Benacquisto.

Freight Mobility Development – HB 1399 by Rep. Brandes.

Economic Development Incentives – HB 7087.

Spaceport Territory – HB 59 by Rep. Ray and Sen. Wise.

Spaceport Facilities – SB 634 by Sen. Benacquisto and Rep. Workman.

Environmental Resource Permitting – HB 7003 by Rep. Crisafulli and Sen. Detert.

Environmental Regulation – HB 503 by Rep. Patronis and Sen. Bennett.

Reclaimed Water – HB 639 by Rep. Young and Sen. Garcia.

One-Stop-Shop – HB 5501 by Rep. Hooper.

Numeric Nutrient Criteria (NNC) – HB 7051.

Growth Management – HB 7081 by Rep. Workman and Sen. Bennett.

Auto Insurance/PIP Reform – HB 119 by Rep. Boyd and Sen. Negron.

Citizens Property Insurance Reform – HB 1127 by Rep. Albritton and Sen. Oelrich.

Developments of Regional Impact – HB 979 by Sen. Diaz and Sen. Bennett.

Unemployment Compensation Tax Reform – HB 7027 by Rep. Holder, Rep. Horner and Sen. Bogdanoff.

Rules Repeal – HB 7029 by Rep. Rooney and Sen. Norman.

Administrative Authority – HB 7055 by Rulemaking/Reg Subcommittee and Sen. Gaetz.

E-Verify – HB 1315 and SB 1638 by Rep. Harrell and Sen. Altman (opposed bill/defeated bill).

Relating to Gaming – HB 487 and SB 710 by Rep. Fresen and Sen. Bogdanoff (opposed bill/defeated bill)

Trial Lawyer Supported Auto Insurance Bill – HB 523 and SB 254 by Rep. Workman and Sen. Bennett (opposed bill/defeated bill)

Tangible Personal Property Rights – HB 1003 by Rep. Eisnaugle and Sen. Detert.

Veterans Hiring Initiative – SB 922 by Sen. Bennett and Rep. Nelson.

Transportation – SB 1998 by Sen. Benacquisto.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 215-9889.



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