Discover more from Seeking Rents
Ten special-interest tax breaks from Ron DeSantis' first term as Florida governor
In his first four years in office, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed off on tax breaks for everyone from Disney and Florida Power & Light to a for-profit university owned by big political donors.
This is Seeking Rents, a newsletter and podcast devoted to producing original journalism — and lifting up the journalism of others — that examines the many ways that businesses influence public policy across Florida, written by Jason Garcia. Seeking Rents is free to all. But please consider a voluntary paid subscription, if you can, to help support our work.
A for-profit university owned by prominent political donors will save more than $1.3 million in property taxes this year, thanks to a tax break from Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.
That’s the equivalent of 20 or so public-school teachers.
The tax break for Full Sail University was slipped into a long piece of tax legislation near the end of the 2021 legislative session. Lawmakers spent less than 30 seconds — House and Senate combined — publicly explaining it before they passed it.
DeSantis signed the measure into law on May 24, 2021. Three days later, companies connected to Full Sail and its owners gave $100,000 to the governor’s political committee, records show.
Here’s how the tax break worked:
Florida has for many years provided property-tax exemptions to private schools for property they own themselves and use for educational purposes. But Full Sail, which has a big campus just north of Orlando, doesn’t own all its land and buildings itself. It also leases a number of properties from separate real-estate companies that are also controlled by some of Full Sail’s owners.
The provision stuffed into HB 7061 expanded the educational property-tax exemption to include property leased by a private school — if that school is a post-secondary institution that is primarily engaged in training students to work on movie productions and has at least 500 enrolled students.
Emails obtained by the Orlando Sentinel after the session ended showed that this language was written specifically to describe Full Sail. And after it passed, Full Sail and the companies it leases land from used it to apply for exemptions on nine new parcels around the Full Sail campus.
The Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office signed off on these new exemptions earlier this month. That means those nine parcels — which had a combined tax bill last year of just over $1.3 million — will now be removed from the tax rolls.
Of course, Full Sail isn’t the only company to get a tax break from Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature. Here are nine more examples from DeSantis’ first term as governor:
Walt Disney World
(Section 6, HB 7123, 2019):
A provision tucked into DeSantis and the Legislature’s 2019 tax package created a new sales tax break for unsold inventory that retailers donate to charities. Records show the proposal came from a lobbyist for Walt Disney World.
The company, which regularly gives leftover merchandise to nonprofits, had been lobbying for the break for at least a year. It finally managed to get the measure passed after Hurricane Michael devastated the Panhandle in the fall of 2018. Company lobbyists claimed that this $5 million a year tax break would prevent retailers from being “punished” when they donate things like bottled water and blankets to groups like the Red Cross.
Never mind the fact that they already get corporate tax breaks for charitable donations. Or that nobody else making charitable donations can get this new sales tax break — it’s only available to retail companies like Disney.
Crown Castle International
(Section 15, HB 7123, 2019)
Literally hours before the end of the 2019 session, lobbyists for Crown Castle, a company that owns cell-phone towers used by telecom giants like Verizon and AT&T, got lawmakers to rewrite their 2019 tax package in order to squeeze in a last-minute favor. The $300,000-a-year break got Crown Castle out of having to pay right-of-way fees charged by cities and counties.
Palm Beach Aggregates
(Section 20, HB 7061, 2021)
In 2017, the Legislature and former Gov. Rick Scott created a new sales tax break to subsidize the construction of big data centers. The idea came from Palm Beach Aggregates — a mining company that is part-owned by big sugar producer Florida Crystals — which was working on a deal to develop a data center on one of its former mining sites.
The tax break, which was expected to provide a subsidy worth up to $3 million a year, was supposed to expire in 2022. But Palm Beach Aggregates’ data center deal hasn’t happened yet, so, in 2021, the company persuaded DeSantis and the Legislature to extend it for another five years.
(Section 2, HB 7071, 2022)
Legally based in Norway but effectively headquartered in Miami, Atlantic Sapphire has built, and continues to expand, a massive salmon-farming factory in Homestead. And after at least three years of lobbying, the company persuaded DeSantis and the Legislature to create a property tax break this year that will force the property appraiser in Miami-Dade County to ignore the value of the company’s fish tanks, filtration systems and other equipment when appraising its property for tax purposes.
It’s a subtle-but-significant change that is expected to slash Atlantic Sapphire’s future property-tax bills by nearly $7.5 million a year.
Hard Rock Stadium
(Section 19, HB 7071, 2022)
Billionaire Steve Ross, the owner of the Miami Dophins and Hard Rock Stadium and one of Ron DeSantis’ more than 40 billionaire donors, got the Legislature and the governor to approve a tax break on Formula One race tickets. The $5.8 million-a-year tax break is meant to help subsidize the Miami Grand Prix, which Formula One is staging at Ross’ Hard Rock Stadium for at least the next 10 years.
(Section 19, HB 7071, 2022)
Not to be outdone by its racing league rival, NASCAR made sure to get its own tax break out of Tallahassee, too: A sales-tax exemption that will allow NASCAR to sell tax-free tickets to the Daytona 500 and its support races. It’s a permanent tax break that’s expected to cost the state $6 million a year.
Florida Power & Light
(Section 23, HB 7071, 2022)
Last year, as part of an agreement allowing it to raise rates by more than $1.5 billion over the next four years, Florida Power & Light won approval to build a “green hydrogen” power plant in Okeechobee County. A few months later, the giant utility persuaded DeSantis and the Legislature to create a new tax break on machinery and equipment used in the construction of green hydrogen power plants.
The tax break is expected to cost the state $300,000 a year — and save FPL an estimated $2.275 million total on the construction of its Okeechobee project.
Florida East Coast Railway
(Section 32, HB 7071, 2022)
Tucked inside the 89-page 2022 tax package is a $6.9 million-a-year subsidy for railroads, to let them recoup some of the money they spend maintaining and replacing their tracks. The corporate-income tax tax break, worth up to $3,500 for every mile of track a railroad owns, is only available to Class II and Class III railroads. And there are less than 10 such railroads in Florida that are also big enough companies to pay the state’s corporate tax.
The biggest of those by far is Jacksonville-based Florida East Coast Railway, which owns more than 530 miles of track across the state, stretching from Jacksonville to Miami.
(Section 52, HB 7071, 2022)
The biggest single tax break DeSantis and the Legislature approved this year is a measure eliminating sales tax on the sale of hurricane-strength windows and doors for the next two years. The idea for the roughly $460 million tax exemption came from one of the world’s largest manufacturers of hurricane-strength windows and doors: PGT Innovations Inc.
The North Venice-based company has become a substantial campaign contributor in recent years (it’s given at least $90,000 to DeSantis since 2019), and it lobbied everyone from legislative leadership to Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis for the tax break. Company executives have told investors that they expect the two-year break to drive demand for its products. (It’ll also lessen the need for the company to do any aggressive discounting itself.)
“I do think it will be a significant demand for us over the next couple of years,” PGT President and CEO Jeff Jackson told Wall Street analysts in May, “and help offset some of the, quite frankly, some of the headwinds that the building industry has had, whether it's interest rate or inflation or various other issues that we're facing. This is a nice breath of relief for us.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated the amount that a “green hydrogen” tax break is expected to save for Florida Power & Light. The tax break is expected to save FPL $2.275 million (not $3.25 million).