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Bill would give confidential tax information to school-voucher provider

A bill under consideration in the Florida Legislature would make it easier for big businesses to pay less in state taxes -- and spend that money on school vouchers instead -- by giving a nonprofit access to confidential tax information.

First, some background: The state's Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program provides vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools. Funding comes from companies that get a state tax credit for every dollar they put toward the vouchers. The single largest operator of the program is Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based nonprofit.

House Bill 965 would allow the Florida Department of Revenue to give Step Up for Students a list of the 100 companies that have the greatest tax liability in the state. That way, Step Up could reach out to those companies to let them know that they can spend money on vouchers instead of on the corporate income tax, for example, or taxes for oil and gas production and insurance premiums.

That information is currently confidential. Step Up would not receive details on each company's tax burden, and it would be prohibited from sharing the information -- but it would be the only company receiving it.

"We want them to fish where the fish are," said Rep. Mike Horner, a Kissimmee Republican and the bill's sponsor, told the House Finance and Tax Committee Wednesday.

Denise Lasher, a lobbyist for Step Up, said in a Senate panel that heard a similar bill earlier in the day that the company already discloses "99 percent" of its corporate donors on its website. The mother of a Tallahassee eighth-grader who has benefited from the vouchers heaped praise on the program.

But the idea of letting a private entity know confidential tax information did not sit well with many Democrats, or with the state's largest teachers union, which said the list should at least become public record if it is released to Step Up.

"We think there's some hypocrisy here at work," said Ron Meyer of the Florida Education Association. "We think everybody should know it, not just one provider."

"I think that sets a very, very bad precedent," said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee.

Some Democrats backed the effort, including Rep. Hazelle Rogers of Lauderdale Lakes. "I think of the choices that I'm providing to parents," she said.