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Senate to move cig tax and tax loopholes bills next week

Forced by the state's grim budget to take up bills it has long resisted, the Senate Finance and Tax Committee today announced it will hear three bills on Tuesday to raise the cigarette tax $1 and two others to close corporate and documentary stamp tax loopholes.

"This is a very very important issue to our state,'' said Sen. Thad Altman, a Melbourne Republilcan and chairman of the committee. "It's the key to the future viability of our state to address them and it's something we must do.''

The Senate is planning to raise about $2.1 billion in additional taxes and fees, including $688 million from a massive expansion of gambling and from the Seminole gaming compact. That list includes $870 million from a $1 per pack cigarette tax hike, more than $740 million from closing tax loopholes and eliminating sales tax exemptions, new excises taxes and fees and $64 million from a university tuition hike.

Altman said he is also drafting a bill that includes more than $100 million of sales tax exemptions. The list will focus on:

* exemptions that "give some businesses an unfair advantage over other businesses,'' (consider health care fitness centers owned by hospitals)

* exemptions that are considered luxuries (consider dry cleaning, lawn care and Super Bowl tickets)

* and exemptions on items that "might exempt out taxes on things that are somewhat wasteful and are not good policy'' (consider bottled water.)

Off the list will be food, agriculture and health care, Altman said.

The committee spent most of today's hearing an appeal from the beer, wine and distilled spirits industry why the state should not raise the excise tax on alcohol.

Altman said it was important "to put them on notice" that they should make their case why the tax should not be increased. Staff said that since the tax was last increased in Florida in 1983, the tax rate is now 54 percent lower than it was based on the subsequent increase in price.

A stream of lobbyists from beer giant Anheuser Busch to retailers warned the committee that any increase in taxes would mean lost jobs for Floridians associated with their industry.

Several committee members asked them to provide quantitative data about the impact on jobs instead of emotional and anecdotal pleas.

"Don’t give me the heartbreak story but stand in front of us and quantify it,'' said Sen. Jeremey Ring, a Boca Raton Democrat. "We know what it means the state if we do this. We can offset budget cuts.''