For the Legislature, passing a budget is always job one. It's the only thing they are required by the state's constitution to put on the governor's desk. But the bills that were passed suggest that the economy was job two this session.
And while they “only” passed 238 bills entering the extended week to adopt the budget — less than half of what's been done in recent past sessions — legislators maintained a cohesive enough focus to pave a path toward economic recovery.
Indicative of the bills designed to spur the economy is one that came out of the Senate Select Committee on Florida's Economy, which according to its chairman, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Ft. Walton Beach, puts the state in a position to get about $200 million in federal tax credits and about $600 million in private investments through the Florida New Markets Development Program.
That bill, known as the “Fast Track Economic Stimulus for Small Businesses,” passed the Senate 40-0 and the House 116-0. Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sponsored the House version.
It wasn't the only pro-business bill that passed both chambers with unanimous votes. Recognizing that time is money, the “Mike McHugh Act,” also known as “Expedited Permitting Process for Economic Development Projects,” passed 118-0 in the House and 37-0 in the Senate. As that name suggests, the bill requires the Department of Environmental Protection and water management districts to speed permitting for economic development projects.
Gaetz is largely content with the Legislature's work on behalf of Florida businesses: “I think business would be pleased considering the size and scope of the revenue shortfall.”
One he particularly likes had its origins in his committee and was adopted unanimously in both chambers as HB 7031. He says the economic development bill will create jobs and streamline a key state incentive program by speeding the time for awards from “months and months” to a maximum of 32 days.
One that wasn't unanimous may have the most positive impact for businesses. The workers' compensation bill, HB 903, is expected to lower workers' comp rates now that the language of the original version of the bill has been restored.
Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, calls it “paramount to the business community” and hopes Gov. Charlie Crist will sign it.
At one point, amendments influenced by lobbyists for trial lawyers, threatened to increase attorney's fees and thus workers' comp costs. Fasano says, “If the Governor doesn't sign it, it's a probability that workers' comp premiums will rise again.”
More bills, less taxes
Property taxes also received their fair share of attention even as property values have plummeted.
One proposed constitutional amendment will let voters decide if they wish to lower the annual property tax increase on non-homesteaded property from 10% to 5%, as is the situation for homesteaded properties. That proposal also provides for an additional 25% homestead property tax exemption for first-time Florida homebuyers, but has a $100,000 cap.
The amount of the exemption would decline by 20% per year over a five-year period, but coupled with new federal tax incentives could be a boon for the real estate and housing industry.
Crist has expressed support for both provisions of the amendment plus another property tax-related bill he says levels the playing field for property tax assessment challenges. As Fasano puts it, “Now, the onus and the responsibility is on the property appraisers.”
Under the bill, taxpayers can evaluate the appraisal method. And now, the property appraiser must prove that the values are lawful and professionally accurate. Importantly, the bill also provides that the taxpayer must meet a lower legal standard to prove his property is not accurately assessed.
Military personnel would also receive an additional property tax exemption on homestead property with voter approval.
The resolution applies to members of the U.S. military who were deployed in the previous year on active duty outside the continental U.S., Alaska or Hawaii in support of designated military operations. The amount of the exemption is tied to the number of days on active duty.
These constitutional amendments would go to the voters in November 2010.
More bills, less government
Another bill that Crist is expected to sign is Senate Bill 360, the growth management bill titled the “Community Renewal Act,” and sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.
The legislation fixes some of the development regulations that have encouraged sprawl over land conserving, energy efficient development in already dense urban areas that have more facilities and services already in place.
The bill establishes transportation concurrency exceptions, removes most development of regional impact reviews from these areas, and, significantly for many businesses, extends most state and local permits for two years retroactive to Sept. 1, 2008.
Impact fee challengers get a boost with House Bill 227 sponsored by Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, which shifts the burden of proof to local governments by requiring proof by a preponderance of the evidence.
Curiously, and unfortunately for Sarasota County businesses, the bill is being used as a reason by County Commissioner Jon Thaxton and others on the board not to lower impact fees as had been proposed earlier this month.
Democrats were also looking to reign in local government behavior.
Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, sponsored SB 216, prohibiting local governments from spending public funds on political ads concerning issues, referenda or amendments coming before voters. It passed overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously in the Senate.
Not all bills had a pro-business slant to them, however.
Senate Bill 810, approved unanimously in both chambers, extends unemployment benefits by raising the amount of an employee's wages subject to an employer's contribution. The bill calls for the new rates to revert to current law after Jan. 1, 2015.
And property and casualty insurance rates could rise if two bills are signed into law, but consumers would have the choice of paying more for higher rated companies, and more choices with more insurers willing to compete for the business should eventually push rates downward. The legislation is also designed to make the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, the so-called “Cat fund,” fiscally sound sooner by allowing rates to rise up to 10% a year.
As positive as the session was for business, Gaetz still sees an ongoing need: “I think there's more left to do in helping Florida businesses and communities come out of this recession sooner and stronger.”