Three Democratic senators, including West Palm Beach’s Bobby Powell, gave Republicans the crucial votes they needed Monday to deliver Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran their election year goal of a November ballot question that could lead to tougher votes for future state lawmakers to raise taxes.
Democratic Sens. Lauren Book of Plantation and Linda Stewart of Orlando also voted in favor of the bill (HJR 7001) while Thonotosassa Republican Tom Lee crossed party lines to vote against it.
Because the measure is a proposed constitutional amendment, it needed at least a three-fifths vote, which is 24 of the chamber’s 40 votes. The vote was 25-13.
The Senate is composed of 23 Republican, 15 Democratic and two vacant seats. If all the Democrats had voted against the bill, or even all but one with Lee’s “No” vote, they could have denied two likely Republican statewide candidates — Scott for U.S. Senate and Corcoran for governor — a top priority for the November ballot.
If 60 percent of the state’s voters approve the measure in November, it would require two-thirds votes in the House and Senate to raise taxes or fees in the future, up from the usual majority votes. The House passed the measure in January.
In interviews with The Palm Beach Post, Powell and Stewart said the opportunity to make this change should lie with voters.
“We have a responsibility to allow them this option,” Powell said. “If they say no, they say no.”
Stewart said, “It’s important that the people be allowed to make that decision. I don’t think it was something to vote against.”
Book similarly told the News Service of Florida that the question should be left up to voters.
Lee voted against the bill because the Senate had adopted the House bill rather than going with its own initial version, which sought to require three-fifths votes, an easier standard than two-thirds, to approve tax increases. The Senate also initially did not propose applying the higher standards to fee increases.
The tax measure will join what is expected to be a lengthy list of proposed constitutional amendments on the November ballot. Others include citizens’ initiatives that would ask voters to automatically restore voting rights for most felons and make it harder to expand gambling and another measure added by lawmakers that would give homeowners a larger property-tax break. And more ballot measures will come from the state’s Constitution Revision Commission as it continues to craft proposals.
Scott, who is also expected to be on the November ballot as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in the race against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, was quick to praise lawmakers for approving the supermajority measure.
Describing the vote as an “overwhelming, bipartisan passage,” Scott’s office released a statement immediately after the vote that also included his tax-cut campaign refrain: “We have cut taxes more than 80 times since I’ve been in office because we know that Florida families and businesses succeed when we put their tax dollars back in their pockets.
But Democrats expressed concerns on the Senate floor that the measure would continue to shift tax burdens to local governments and leave the state unable to keep up with environmental, educational and other needs.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, said the proposal will “tie the hands” of lawmakers when they eventually address sea-level rise and climate change, which will only grow in cost.
“This is designed to make it harder for us to deal with those problems,” Rodriguez said.
Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens, downplayed the vote, however, telling The Post that Democrats had not taken a formal caucus on the bill, so members could vote how they wished.
“We have other fights to fight,” he said, referencing the school safety bill that contains the controversial “school marshal program,” which would allow teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus.
The proposal has the backing of the business lobby, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, Florida TaxWatch and the National Federation of Independent Business/Florida.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.