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Tax-cut bill focuses on helping farmers, others with Irma losses

A tax package that provides relief for farmers and property owners who suffered losses from Hurricane Irma, while offering sales-tax breaks at the start of the school year and hurricane season, was approved by the House and Senate in a rare Sunday conclusion to the legislative session.

Gov. Rick Scott’s office didn’t indicate Sunday if he would sign the package, which totals about $170 million, saying he will read the bill when it arrives on his desk.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

Less robust than what lawmakers had initially proposed, the package (HB 7087) contains a number of proposals offered by Scott before the session started in January.

The package offers tax breaks on agricultural fencing materials purchased for repairs after Hurricane Irma. It also includes tax breaks for citrus packing houses that had their businesses interrupted by Hurricane Irma or by the deadly disease citrus greening and for fuel used to transport agricultural products after the storm.

The proposal also includes a property-tax break for homeowners displaced by Irma and a break for nursing homes that purchase electric generators.

The House agreed to a Senate proposal to reduce a commercial lease tax from 5.8 percent to 5.7 percent. The House had earlier proposed dropping the tax rate to 5.5 percent.

Tax “holidays

included in the bill are the back-to-school tax holiday, lifting sales taxes on clothes costing $60 or less and school supplies costing $15 or less, over three days in early August; and starting June 1, a seven-day tax “holiday” on hurricane-related gear, such as tarpaulins, batteries, weather-band radios and portable generators.

The bill also includes a 9 percent reduction on civil penalties for non-criminal traffic infractions, such as speeding within 30 mph over the posted limit, if motorists attend driver-improvement school.

The House voted 93-12 for the bill, with all of the opposition coming from Democrats. That came after the Senate voted 33-3 for the bill, with opposition from Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami.

Rodriguez said much of the package is crafted to allow Republicans to campaign on reducing taxes, while the Legislature failed to address issues that have more impact on Floridians, such as climate change and the influx of citizens from Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria.

Tuition break for students with excess hours

Students who take too many classes while earning bachelor’s degrees at Florida public universities could avoid a financial penalty if they graduate within four years, under a bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott. The Senate on Friday voted 37-0 for the measure (HB 565), which the House earlier approved 115-0.

Since 2012, university students who take more than 132 credit hours of classes for a major that typically needs only 120 credit hours must pay an excess-hour surcharge, which doubles the tuition rate for the additional credits $200 to $400 per credit hour.

The bill would give first-time-in-college students up to 12 extra hours, penalty free, if they graduate within four years of enrollment. They would pay the penalty but would be reimbursed through a refund. Analysts project it could help nearly 1,500 students avoid the surcharge annually, although it would result in a loss of $2.4 million for the universities.

Latvala formally exits governor’s race

Former state Sen. Jack Latvala, who resigned his Senate seat after a sexual-harassment investigation, formally withdrew from the gubernatorial campaign Friday.

Latvala, R-Clearwater, advised Secretary of State Ken Detzner in a letter that he was terminating his campaign.

“I will of course comply with Chapter 106. Florida Statutes and timely file the required 90-day termination report,” Latvala wrote in the short withdrawal notification. “I want to thank you and the staff at the Division of Elections for your professionalism and timely responses to our inquiries.”

A special master in December found probable cause to support allegations that the senator had repeatedly groped a Senate aide and engaged in a pattern of making unwelcome remarks about women’s bodies. Latvala blamed political foes for his downfall and asserted his innocence in his Senate resignation letter.

Scott appoints Rep. Metz circuit judge

Before the Florida House finished its vote on the state budget Sunday, Gov. Rick Scott made a surprise visit to the chamber to announce he had appointed state Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, as a Central Florida circuit judge.

Metz, a key lieutenant for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, on ethics and legal issues, could not run again this year for his House seat because of term limits. Scott appointed Metz to a judgeship in the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumter counties.

Metz, 62, has represented Lake County’s House District 32 and was a candidate in 2016 for a spot on the Florida Supreme Court. Scott ultimately chose Alan Lawson for the Supreme Court seat.

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