Their Own Agenda
By Francis X. Gilpin | Associate Editor
Republican state Rep. Richard Glorioso says a few of his Plant City constituents get nervous whenever the Florida Legislature goes into session, as it did earlier this month.
"I've got friends that say whenever I'm in Plant City, they're happy," jokes Glorioso. "Every time I go to Tallahassee, they put their hands on their wallets and say, 'oh-oh.'"
They probably aren't business owners.
"The business climate in Florida is very good," says Allen Douglas, the new state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, who dropped by a recent pre-session reception for Glorioso and other local legislators in Brandon. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a better state, or one that is as good."
But there is always room for improvement. The NFIB, perhaps the loudest voice for small business in Washington and state capitals around the country, plans to work with Florida lawmakers toward that improvement over the next two months.
Like other business lobbies, the NFIB wants more tort reform - specifically, a ban on deep-pocketed defendants being forced to pay more than their fair share of a court judgment.
But the NFIB parts somewhat with big business lobbies, such as Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, when Douglas looks down the rest of his legislative priority list.
Stopping public agencies from confiscating private property for development is a much bigger concern for small businesses than it is for the Walt Disney Co., for example.
A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legitimized a Connecticut city's land-taking persuaded Florida House leaders to set up a special committee to study private property rights in the state.
State Rep. A. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, who serves on the committee, says he expects the panel to finish drafting legislation soon. The bill would narrow the circumstances when municipalities may condemn private property for a non-governmental purpose.
It is surprisingly easy for local government to do it under current law, according to Traviesa. "The taking of someone's private property under eminent domain is this kind of house of 1,000 doors," he says. "If you can't get it one way, you can get it another."
The House committee wants cities and towns to be able to condemn only when the property poses a health or safety risk, fair notice has been given to the owner to eradicate a dangerous situation and just compensation is paid. The mere fact that a business district has gone upscale and a long-time merchant won't transform his property into a latte cafe would be insufficient justification for condemnation.
"We were told, in the beginning, that Florida law protects us here in Florida and that can't happen to us," says Douglas. "Well, the fact of the matter is, it does."
Beachfront municipalities eager for condominium development have been repeat offenders, according to Douglas. "Florida is probably one of the worst states in the nation for it happening," says Douglas.
The House Select Committee to Protect Private Property Rights is using Riviera Beach as a rallying cry.
Riviera Beach could seize and level more than 2,000 homes along the Florida east coast city's waterfront to clear a path for high-rise condos and expensive boutiques.
State Rep. Everett Rice, R-Treasure Island, predicted at a hearing of the committee last month that Riviera Beach will become "the poster child of eminent domain abuse in this nation."
Douglas says small business owners should be worried about tax-hungry government, if nothing is done. "It may not be just taxes. It might be the number of jobs," he says. "You might have a business that employs 10 people, a very viable business, a very good business, but you could put a Wal-Mart there and employ a lot more people and get the sales taxes."
There is quiet opposition, from city governments and redevelopment agencies, to narrowing the criteria for approval of eminent domain.
"Nobody is really standing in front of it because nobody I think really wants to get in front of property rights," says Traviesa.
Glorioso, a former Plant City commissioner, confirms that the Florida League of Cities is plotting to derail the reform. "I know they're concerned about it," Glorioso says. "But maybe they'll mellow."
Traviesa says he and most of his colleagues favor putting the condemnation restrictions into the Florida Constitution by voter referendum this fall.
"If you're going to fix private property rights law, you've got to fix it constitutionally," says Traviesa. "So a future Legislature doesn't come along and put us right back where we are."
Who gets the subsidy?
Another point of departure between the NFIB and the big business lobbies is Florida government subsidies for large employers.
Douglas, who used to lobby for the state's general contractors, says NFIB surveys find more small business owners dropping medical insurance for employees. The 80% of NFIB members who offered employee insurance in 2002 was down to 69% last year.
"They need some help in being able to afford the health care," says Douglas. "And when they see the government go and hand $200 million or $300 million to one company to move into an area, they don't like it."
The Scripps Research Institute is getting $310 million from the state and up to another $200 million from Palm Beach County to open a biotechnology facility in South Florida, a plan championed by Gov. Jeb Bush.
Short of wading into the health insurance crisis, Traviesa says, Florida lawmakers are weighing other options for easing the burdens of small business.
Traviesa would like to see a cap on real estate tax reassessments for small businesses, similar to the so-called Save Our Homes amendment that Florida voters approved more than a decade ago for homestead properties.
"Look, revenues have been going up awfully fast for local governments," Traviesa says. "We're all in a windfall situation here. Let's check ourselves and do the right thing."
But Traviesa sees no better than a 70% chance of such a measure passing this year. That is because large corporations will want the same treatment and some lawmakers might balk at that.
"Maybe they're not happy about Citigroup getting a tax break," he says. "But, to be honest with you, if it's fair, it's fair. Citigroup creates a lot of jobs here, too."
WHO WAS WITH BUSINESS ON THE GULF COAST?
State senator Party District office Voted w/ AIF Senate rank
Michael S. Bennett Republican Bradenton 100% First (tie)
Lisa Carlton Republican Osprey 100% First (tie)
Jim Sebesta Republican St. Petersburg 96% Seventh (tie)
Tom Lee Republican Brandon 94% 10th (tie)
Victor D. Crist Republican Tampa 91% 19th (tie)
Larcenia J. Bullard Democrat Miami 90% 21st (tie)
Burt L. Saunders Republican Naples 90% 21st (tie)
Dave Aronberg Democrat Greenacres 88% 25th (tie)
Dennis L. Jones Republican Seminole 88% 25th (tie)
Mike Fasano Republican New Port Richey 86% 31st
Lesley Miller Jr. Democrat Tampa 72% 40th
Source: Associated Industries of Florida analysis of 2005 legislative voting records
FLORIDA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
State representative Party District office Voted w/ AIF House rank
Donna Clarke Republican Sarasota 100% First (tie)
Faye B. Culp Republican Tampa 100% First (tie)
Michael J. Grant Republican Port Charlotte 100% First (tie)
Denise Grimsley Republican Sebring 100% First (tie)
Paige Kreegel Republican Punta Gorda 100% First (tie)
Kenneth W. Littlefield Republican Zephyrhills 100% First (tie)
Ron Reagan Republican Sarasota 100% First (tie)
David Rivera Republican Naples 100% First (tie)
David D. Russell Jr. Republican Spring Hill 100% First (tie)
A. Trey Traviesa Republican Brandon 100% First (tie)
Dennis A. Ross Republican Lakeland 99% 40th (tie)
Bill Gavano Republican Bradenton 98% 44th (tie)
Richard Glorioso Republican Plant City 98% 44th (tie)
John Legg Republican Port Richey 98% 44th (tie)
Everett Rice Republican Indian Shores 98% 44th (tie)
Trudi K. Williams Republican Fort Myers 98% 44th (tie)
Nancy C. Detert Republican Venice 97% 63rd
Mike Davis Republican Naples 96% 64th (tie)
Ed Homan Republican Temple Terrace 96% 64th (tie)
Jeffrey D. Kottkamp Republican Cape Coral 96% 64th (tie)
Leslie Waters Republican St. Petersburg 96% 64th (tie)
Gus Michael Bilirakis Republican Palm Harbor 95% 75th (tie)
J. Dudley Goodlette Republican Naples 95% 75th (tie)
Thomas Anderson Republican Holiday 93% 78th (tie)
Bruce Kyle Republican Fort Myers 92% 80th (tie)
Kim Berfield Republican Clearwater 91% 83rd (tie)
Frank Farkas Republican St. Petersburg 90% 85th
Kevin C. Ambler Republican Tampa 77% 88th
Bob Henriquez Democrat Tampa 76% 89th
Frank Peterman Jr. Democrat St. Petersburg 65% 99th (tie)
Charlie Justice Democrat St. Petersburg 60% 107th
Arthenia L. Joyner Democrat Tampa 55% 115th (tie)
Source: Associated Industries of Florida analysis of 2005 legislative voting records
TOP OF THE SMALL BUSINESS TO-DO LIST
Here are some of the business issues in the Florida legislative session and their chances of passing or failing.
Proposed legislation: Rep. Everett S. Rice, R-Treasure Island, and Rep. Frank Peterman Jr., D-St. Petersburg, have introduced separate bills to shield private property from government seizure for economic development. The House Select Committee to Protect Private Property Rights, chaired by Speaker-designate Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, is drafting the bills that will get strongest consideration.
Background: Last summer's controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing the local government taking of private property for commercial development in New London, Conn., energized property rights advocates in Florida to enact constitutional prohibitions.
Who SUPPORTS curbing
eminent domain powers of government? The country's premier small business lobby, the National Federation of Independent Business, announced this month that 91% of its Florida members want restrictions.
Who OPPOSES it? Kraig A. Conn, legislative counsel for the Florida League of Cities, appeared at a recent hearing of the House select committee as an opponent of eminent domain reform.
How does it look? Rep. A. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, a member of the select committee, predicts the lawmakers will send voters a proposal to permit economic development-inspired property takings only in limited circumstances. "If it's not a public health risk or a public safety risk," he says, "good luck."
Proposed legislation: Outright repeal of the 65-year-old tax is the thrust of separate bills filed by Sen. Jeffrey H. Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and Rep. Frederick C. Brummer, R-Apopka, that are moving through committees in both chambers.
Background: Florida levies a property tax on intangible assets such as stocks, bonds, notes and interests in limited partnerships registered with federal securities regulators. Since 1999, lawmakers have been steadily reducing the tax rate, currently 50 cents for every $1,000 of intangible property value.
Who is for complete repeal of the intangible tax? Business groups are among the interests favoring total repeal as a means to remove a disincentive to investment in Florida companies.
Who OPPOSES it? Three Democrats were on the losing end of a 12-3 vote last month reporting Brummer's bill favorably out of the House Fiscal Council. There is little organized opposition, although repeal will cost the state treasury an estimated $292 million over the next two fiscal years.
How does it look? With budget surpluses forecast, Gov. Jeb Bush, an ardent foe of the intangible tax, is almost certain to get a farewell gift from fellow Republicans in the Legislature: A repeal bill to sign.
Real estate tax
assessments on business
Proposed legislation: Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, have filed identical bills to extend the benefits of the so-called Save Our Homes amendment to all commercial and residential property in Florida.
Background: Voters wrote the Save Our Homes assessment cap into the Florida Constitution in 1992. Since then, owners of business and non-homestead residential property have borne the biggest assessment hikes from the Florida real estate boom.
Who is for expanding the real estate tax assessment cap beyond owner-occupied homes? Businesses are eager for the tax relief. But voters may balk at amending the Florida Constitution again when they find out their residential tax bills could rise substantially as assessments even out.
Who OPPOSES it? County and municipal governments couldn't collect taxes from $81 billion in higher homestead property values in 2005 because of the Save Our Homes cap. So they could oppose more assessment caps.
How does it look? A ballot referendum may emerge from the business-friendly Legislature. But local officials could exploit homeowner fears of higher taxes and orchestrate the defeat of another amendment at the polls in November.