Fla.: Business wins, colleges suffer this session

JAMES L. ROSICA

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's businesses scored victories in the Legislature in the newly concluded annual session, but some college students say they wonder if the treatment lawmakers gave that sector came at their expense.

For businesses, legislators reduced a mammoth increase in unemployment compensation taxes set to take effect this year, resulting in $550 million in expected savings for businesses over two years.

Lawmakers also approved $120 million in various tax breaks. They put a constitutional amendment on the ballot boosting the tax exemption for what's known as "tangible personal property," which includes computers, tools, machinery and other equipment.

But tuition may be going up for college and university students, particularly those attending the University of Florida and Florida State University. One bill would let those schools raise tuition more than the annual 15 percent limit, if Gov. Rick Scott signs it into law.

Business representatives generally agree this was a good session for their interests, while one student organizer said she was disappointed but not surprised.

"We feel shafted every session, to be honest," said Kelsie Taggart, an organizer with the FSU Progress Coalition.

Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, started even before the session mentioning that the Legislature had "limited bandwidth" for issues other than redistricting and the required passage of a state budget.

But clearly there was room in the spectrum to take care of issues close to the state's business lobby.

Overall, "this was a good session for the business community," said David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "We made some good steps forward."

The added tangible personal property tax exemption, assuming it passes with 60 percent approval in November, will put money back in the operating accounts of small businesses, said Bill Herrle, executive director of the Florida chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

The measure provides a second $25,000 exemption for those businesses with total taxable assets of less than $50,000. That affects 150,000 Florida businesses, Herrle said.

"It's dollars on the bottom line," he said, explaining that the break translates into $300 to $400 for the 2013 tax year.

"Is that enough to go out and create a job? No," Herrle said. "But it is more money to invest back into a business."

The change in unemployment compensation is more relevant to job growth, he added.

"Small business owners are just on the cusp of expansion in this economy," Herrle said. "I think that was the one best single job vote of the session."

Taggart, a political science and economics major from Broward County, said she and other college students are tired of policymakers helping others "on the backs of students."

"We can't afford our education without taking out more loans," she said. "College is supposed to be a step forward" but with the more money owed, it can become "a step backward."

Taggart was among 200 students and others who rallied on the FSU campus Monday to protest against planned UF and FSU tuition hikes.

Scott has said he is opposed to increasing tuition at state universities. Taggart said she just wanted to remind him of that statement.

"Hopefully we can push him on this to see the wiser way," she said.

But Hart said he chafes at suggestions that the help given to businesses somehow comes at the expense of middle- and working-class Floridians.

Being "business-friendly" means putting people back to work, making everyone more productive, according to Hart.

"We're all in this together," Hart said.