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‘Cluster, but somehow we declare victory.’ Top gov’t officials were not sure about Scott’s tax cut after questionable vote

After a constitutionally questionable vote on Gov. Rick Scott’s top legislative priority, a tax break for manufacturers, House Speaker Will Weatherford quickly declared the bill passed, despite its failing to reach an 80-vote supermajority previously considered necessary. 

“We think it is extremely constitutional,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after the contentious May 1 vote, stating that he had discussed the issue with legislative legal staff. He followed up with a statement asking “Who would sue to stop a tax cut?” 

But behind the scenes, top government staffers over in the executive branch were not so sure, with one calling the whole scene a “cluster” and another saying that there “some uncertainty as to whether HB 7007 passed” that night. (Definition of slang term "cluster" here, for the over-50 crowd.)

Emails obtained by the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau show top officials from Gov. Rick Scott’s office and the Department of Revenue were not sure whether the House had run afoul of the Constitution or not. 

“I guess it passed in 7005. Did it get 2/3 to bypass the mandate issue?”  Holger Ciupalo, a chief analyst for Scott, wrote to Christian Weiss, chief economist with the Department of Revenue,  hours after the 68-48 House vote on the manufacturing tax cut. 

Weiss replied: “(HB) 7007: yes. 2/3 no. Go to sayfie to read all the discussions. Cluster, but somehow we declare victory…” 

Weiss and Scott’s legislative liaison Renee Fargason also had an email exchange after the vote: 

Fargason: “The following 43 bills passed the Legislature today, May 1… ***At this time there is some uncertainty as to whether HB 7007 passed.” 

Weiss replied: “7007 passed but may later be challenged on constitutional ground lacking a mandates (sic) 2/3rd majority.” 

Fargason replied: "Ok thanks! Wasn't sure if they could change the verdict since they didn't have 2/3."

Weiss then followed up with: "They can still recall it but doubt they will given the toxic atmosphere in the H(ouse)."

In other emails obtained by the Herald/Times, government officials pass along copies of the Florida Constitution, highlighting sections of the that deal with the 2/3rds mandate. 

Scott signed HB 7007 into law last month. So far, there does not appear to be a lawsuit against the tax cut, which goes into effect next year. The tax break could cost local governments millions of dollars during its three year run.  Democrats, who all voted against HB 7007 and had been protesting against House leadership on the day of the vote, immediately threatened lawsuits.

Legislative staffers—who initially said the manufacturing tax cut could need a two-thirds vote to pass because it would put a dent into local governments’ revenue, took a different position after the bill failed to get a two-thirds vote. An updated staff analysis by the House, released two weeks after the vote, removes all references to Article VII, section 18 of the Florida Constitution (the portion protecting local governments from unfunded mandates). 

A staff analysis written for the Senate prior to the vote said a two-thirds vote was necessary. A pre-vote  staff analysis for the House raised the two-thirds vote as a possibility. 

Of note, the bill has changed since the first staff analyses, but the final version would still have an annual impact on local government revenue. 

A spokesperson for Weatherford said the House’s legal staff determined that the bill did not need a two-thirds majority and that the updated staff analysis after the vote followed the standard practice of not addressing constitutional issues in a bill that has already passed. 

Scott listed the manufacturing tax cut as one of two legislative priorities this year, along with a $2,500 pay raise for all public school teachers. The Legislature approved both priorities afteradding significant changes to each.