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Under Florida House proposal, going to the store could mean funding school vouchers

Store
Gabriella Angotti-Jones | Times

Most people don't consider walking into a corner store and buying a gallon of milk to be a controversial action. But under a new proposal in the Florida House, part of that sales tax could pay for school vouchers that have been a flash point between lawmakers and activists.

The proposal, only a small piece of a larger tax package passed through the Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, would open up sales tax revenue to finance two of the state's major voucher programs that allow low-income students and those with disabilities to attend private schools on the state's dime.

If it succeeds, this would be a big first for a specific education program to draw money from consumer-directed sales tax — which has previously been off-limits for earmarks. The sales tax is largely directed to the state's general fund, which pays for everything from roads to public schools. the sales tax is the state's largest funding source. It produced $24.6 billion in 2016.

"These are mostly poor minority students who are struggling academically and ... they're looking for a lifeboat for a better education," said Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, the chair of Ways and Means.  "There is a demand that far exceeds what the SFOs (scholarship-funding organizations) have been able to access."

He added that he didn't think using sales tax for school vouchers would open the floodgates for different causes.

"Are people going to come out of the woodwork? They'll have to make their case," Renner said. "This is a compelling case to help those that have educational needs."

Currently, the state has a few programs allow businesses to get tax credits on their sales tax for creating jobs or contributing to the state's agricultural sector. However, this would be the first time businesses could essentially earmark their sales tax for a specific purpose rather than going to the state's general bank account.

The House's proposal would allow businesses to opt-in to this program and cap scholarship funding at $154 million, allowing the wait-lists of the existing Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit Scholarships to substantially shrink. Those dollars would go straight to the organizations administering the scholarships, rather than to state's general revenue.

Democrats condemned the measure as a "giveaway" and a way for the state to inch its way into taking away a piece of the state's most important funding source from traditional public schools.

Rep. Joseph Abruzzo of Boynton Beach, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, asked repeatedly to have this piece separated from the rest of the tax package, which both parties had cooperated to draft. Those amendments failed.

"The truth of the matter is ... this is not just for the poorest of the poorest of the poor anymore," he said. "It started out just a corporate tax scholarship, we're moving into fees and now in this bill we have gone into the unbelievable realm of sales tax. That is just wrong."

Even Rep. Margaret Good — who was elected just Tuesday night to represent Sarasota in a victory for Democrats in a typical Republican stronghold — spoke at a press conference opposing this bill shortly before she was sworn in.

"Over the last five months I have knocked on a lot of doors and talked to a lot of voters in Sarasota who are really concerned about our public education system," she said.

Funding for school vouchers has exploded in the years since they were created. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program began as a $50 million project in 2001, and will give out close to $700 million in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Department of Education.

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