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Ten wins in 2022 that all Floridians can feel good about
Stopping corporate tax cuts, saving minimum wage laws, and consequences for public corruption: An encouraging end-of-the-year list.
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 afford one, to help support our work.
Writing about corporate influence in Florida can be a pretty grim affair. And I imagine reading about it isn’t always the most uplifting way to pass the time, either.
This is a state where 10 big companies just plowed more than $40 million into the elections for governor, Legislature and other state offices. And there are always more corporate favors, industry giveaways or special-interest tax breaks to talk about.
So for my take on the traditional end-of-the-year list, I thought I’d do something a bit more upbeat: Ten wins from 2022 that all Floridians can feel good about.
It’s obviously no secret that armies of lobbyists and buckets of campaign cash can buy a lot of influence in the Florida Capitol. But people power can still beat it.
Remember that in 2023.
Happy New Year. And on to the list:
Stopping corporate tax cuts
In the spring of 2019, just a few months after taking office, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a giant package of tax cuts for the state’s largest corporations.
That package did three big things. First, it slashed Florida’s corporate tax rate by nearly 40 percent for the 2020 and 2021 tax years. Second, it triggered a round of corporate tax refunds that the DeSantis administration sent out in early 2022. And third, it created a new corporate tax break that makes it easier for corporations to avoid paying state taxes on profits that they have shifted into overseas subsidiaries.
Altogether, DeSantis’ corporate tax cuts saved the top 1 percent of businesses — the only businesses that pay Florida’s tax on corporate profits — an estimated $2.8 billion. That’s more than DeSantis and the Florida Legislature spent on affordable housing during his entire first term as governor.
Those corporate tax cuts were (mostly) temporary. But lobbyists for corporations like Disney, Comcast and Anheuser-Busch fought hard to make them permanent. They even persuaded the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida — Joe Gruters, who is also a state senator representing the Sarasota area — to personally sponsor a bill during the 2022 session that would have locked these corporate tax cuts in forever.
But the Florida Legislature said no. Lawmakers from both political parties refused to make these corporate tax cuts permanent. They have even killed efforts by individual companies to get narrower tax carveouts for themselves — including one by rental-car giant Avis.
It was, by far, the biggest loss of the year for Florida’s corporate lobby — and an enormous win for everyday Floridians.
Money for people instead of businesses
Why is stopping corporate tax cuts a win for everyday Floridians?
Well, it turns out that when you don’t give millions of dollars to corporations like Amazon, Home Depot and HCA, you have a lot more money to spend helping real people.
We saw that this year when DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed the most pro-consumer package of tax cuts in recent Florida memory. The $1 billion-plus package included an assortment of people-centered tax breaks, including eliminating sales taxes for one year on baby diapers (an idea that actually came from some Democratic lawmakers).
It also eliminated sales taxes on hurricane-strength windows and doors for two years; on baby and toddler clothes for one year; on energy-efficient appliances for six months; and on children’s books for three months. And it permanently cut sales taxes in half on the purchase of new mobile homes.
This was a total sea change in Tallahassee, where DeSantis and the Legislature had previously steered most tax breaks to businesses while distracting voters with gimmicky “tax holidays” that really only save money for stores. (In addition to the giant corporate tax cut discussed above, DeSantis and the Legislature have also cut a tax that businesses pay when leasing property by more than $1 billion a year — which they paid for by increasing taxes on Florida consumers.
Now, this year’s package of tax cuts still included some special interest giveaways, including tax breaks sought by Florida Power & Light and the billionaire owners of the Miami Dolphins and NASCAR. It also had more useless tax holidays. But the vast majority of the tax savings will go to Florida consumers.
If we’re grading on the curve of Tallahassee tax cuts, this year’s tax package was an A-minus, at least. There’s a reason it passed the Legislature unanimously.
A big question for 2023 is whether this focus on consumers will continue. Just before the election, DeSantis promised to make the Legislature pass another big package of people-centered tax cuts — including a permanent elimination of sales taxes on diapers, cribs, strollers and more and one-year sales-tax exemptions for household supplies like laundry detergent, paper towels and pet food.
But that was before the election. And there can be a big difference between a Ron DeSantis who is trying to persuade voters to support him and a Ron DeSantis who doesn’t have to worry about re-election for a few years.
Just compare the property insurance legislation he signed in May 2022, which tried to balance requests from insurance companies with protections for consumers, with the property insurance bill he signed in December 2022, which was utterly lopsided in the industry’s favor.
Then again, DeSantis is likely to be right back in pre-election mode if, as is expected, he launches a presidential campaign in the spring or summer of 2023. And that could make consumer tax cuts a priority — especially since DeSantis will probably be running against former President Donald Trump, who signed one of the largest federal corporate tax cuts in American history.
Bipartisan support for closing corporate tax loopholes
This is the last tax item on the list, I swear.
As great as it is that Florida didn’t make any big, permanent corporate tax cuts this year, the state still has one of the easiest-to-avoid corporate taxes in the nation. The best way to fix things would be to pass a policy known as “combined reporting,” which would close off tax-dodging strategies used by corporate giants like Target.
There was good news and bad new on this front in 2022.
Bad new first: The Florida Legislature once again rejected combined reporting, as Republicans in the state House of Representatives killed it on a 75-39 vote during the last legislative session.
But the good news is that bipartisan support for combined reporting is growing. None other than U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz — the brash Panhandle Republican who has emerged as a national leader in the Trump wing of the Republican Party — endorsed combined reporting this year.
“Florida should join the majority of states in adopting combined reporting of state corporate income taxes,” Gaetz said in April. “Combined reporting is hardly a tool of liberals. Even Texas made the obvious change to protect the pocketbooks of its own citizens.”
Now, whatever you think of Matt Gaetz and his motives, he’s got quite a bit of influence on the right. For instance, after Gaetz came out in support of combined reporting, so did Gaetz disciple Anthony Sabatini, the former Republican legislator from northwest of Orlando who made a failed run for Congress.
Let’s just forgive the fact that Sabatini announced his support for combined reporting just months after he voted against it. Everybody learns at their own pace.
Ron DeSantis’ vetoes
Speaking of the differences between a pre-election and post-election Ron DeSantis: Until this year, Florida’s governor had been very good to Florida Power & Light, the state’s biggest power company and probably the most politically influential corporation in all of state politics.
But that changed in 2022. After FPL muscled a bill through the Florida Legislature meant to slow the spread of rooftop solar panels — a bill literally written by FPL lobbyists — DeSantis stepped in and vetoed it.
It was one of three big, corporate-backed bills that DeSantis shot down this year. The governor also vetoed a bill sought by Florida’s Big Sugar growers — Florida Crystals Corp. and U.S. Sugar Corp. — that was meant to help them in a battle for water stored in Lake Okeechobee. (That same bill also included another gift for FPL.)
And DeSantis vetoed the so-called “Local Business Protection Act,” which would have created a new way for businesses to sue cities and counties that pass local regulations those businesses don’t like. The bill alarmed animal-rights activists in particular, who worried it was meant to help Petland, a national pet-store chain that has been trying for years to stop local laws that prohibit stores from selling kittens and puppies for profit. (DeSantis himself seemed to share that concern.)
Now, DeSantis also signaled in his veto letters that he might be willing to sign modified versions of FPL’s anti-solar-panel bill and the bill allowing businesses to sue local governments. So we might see these fights again in 2023.
Or maybe FPL and Petland will just try to get Wilton Simpson elected governor.
Mickey Mouse loses his cheese
I suspect anyone reading this knows all about Ron DeSantis’ war with Disney.
Just to quickly recap: Pressured into action by its own employees, the Walt Disney Co. belatedly spoke out against Florida’s controversial “Parental Rights in Education” legislation — aka the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” — which restricts the ability of public-school teachers to talk to their students about sexual orientation and gender identity. Disney, which has historically been one of the biggest donors to politicians in Florida, also announced it would suspend its campaign contributions in the state.
That prompted DeSantis and Republican leaders in the Legislature to retaliate against the company — by stripping Disney of some of the perks it had previously lobbied into law.
Now, admittedly, the motives here aren’t great. The state’s elected leaders punished a company for publicly expressing an opposing view on public policy — and for turning off its spigot of campaign cash. But if you set the motive aside, DeSantis and the Legislature actually did some good.
The biggest thing they did was set in motion a plan that could — could — eliminate Disney’s personal government in central Florida.
Known as the “Reedy Creek Improvement District,” it often gets oversimplified as a “tax district” or “tax status,” but it’s actually a full-fledged city government that is completely controlled by Disney.
The benefit isn’t really about taxes. Yes, Reedy Creek gives Disney some tax advantages, including the ability to avoid paying impact fees, to sell tax-free bonds, and to avoid sales taxes when it builds things like parking garages. But Disney also pays most of the property taxes that run Reedy Creek, which in turn handles services that some other public government would otherwise have to provide.
What Reedy Creek really gives Disney is efficiency and predictability. It’s a captive municipal government that Disney can be sure will always quickly approve whatever construction plans it submits and build any infrastructure Disney needs. That’s an enormous advantage over other companies, who have to get down in the muck of local politics whenever they need something from a city government run by independently elected leaders with more than one constituency to serve.
Reedy Creek shouldn’t exist. No corporation should have (nearly) all the powers of a City Hall.
The other thing that DeSantis and the Legislature did was repeal an utterly absurd carveout that had exempted Disney from an already-unconstitutional law that was supposed to stop censorship by social-media companies like Twitter and Facebook.
Disney never should have been given that carveout in the first place. (And Ron DeSantis shouldn’t have helped Disney get that carveout in the first place.)
Now, the Reedy Creek bill doesn’t actually dissolve the district until June 2023.
Whether and how DeSantis and the Legislature really follow through with this will be a fascinating story to watch in 2023 — though not a terribly important story in the grand scheme of things.
Protecting higher wages for workers
One of the worst bills of 2022 was a piece of legislation that would have struck down local laws in cities like Miami and St. Petersburg that require companies that get government contracts to pay their workers a little more than the minimum wage.
The entire point of this bill was to let companies feasting off local taxpayers share even less with their own employees.
It turned out that one company in particular was the driving force behind the bill: Power Design, a St. Petersburg-based business that is one of the biggest mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering contractors in the country. The company also helped prop up a seemingly fake grassroots group that testified in favor of the legislation, according to the Tampa Bay Times, which blew the whistle on the bill and Power Design’s behind-the-scenes role in it.
This was also a moment that proved local journalism still matters: Power Design’s anti-minimum-wage bill had been sailing through the Legislature until the Times pulled back the curtain on it all. The bill never moved again after that.
Power Design has made several big campaign contributions since the session ended, including donating $60,000 to Ron DeSantis this fall. So this could be a battle that will be fought again during the 2023 session.
Power Design will have to find a new bill sponsor, though.
Combating housing insecurity
This was true at the start of the year, and it remains true at the end of the year: Florida is in an affordable housing crisis.
But policymakers, particularly at the local level, took some big steps in the meantime that could help Floridians — particularly renters — find and stay in their homes.
Places like Miami and Tampa passed “Tenants’ Bill of Rights” laws that require landlords to give their tenants more notice before they jack up the rent. The city of St. Petersburg made it illegal for landlords to discriminate against recipients of housing vouchers and may pass a “Right to Counsel” law that would ensure tenants have attorneys during eviction proceedings. The city of Jacksonville allowed backyard dwellings. The city of Gainesville eliminated single-family zoning (though the DeSantis administration is trying to overturn that.)
And voters in Orange County overwhelmingly approved a referendum calling for local rent control, despite a multimillion-dollar opposition campaign financed by the real-estate industry. The Orange County measure seems likely to be struck down by the courts, but it’s a testament to how angry voters are about the cost of housing — and something that could weaken the influence of corporate landlords in Tallahassee who have been so powerful in recent years that they even stopped lawmakers from helping members of the U.S. military.
In Tallahassee, housing advocates managed to stop an effort led by led some for-profit housing developers that would have made it easier to convert publicly subsidized, rent-restricted housing into market-rate apartments and condos.
Advocates also blocked a bill, written by lobbyists for real-estate tech companies like Rhino and LeseLock, that would have made it easier to charge apartment tenants perpetual and non-refundable fees in place of one-time, refundable security deposits.
Records obtained after the session ended revealed that the housing developers were working closely with DeSantis on their bill, and that one of the security-deposit companies has been laundering op-eds in news outlets around the country.
So like some of the other stuff on this list, these issues are likely to come back in 2023.
Florida’s public-records law works
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is notoriously secretive and slow to respond to public-records request. And the governor’s staff has drafted proposals that would make it even harder to obtain public records.
But 2022 also proved the power of Florida’s public-records law to expose information that many elected officials try to keep hidden from their own voters.
The best example may be the Florida Center for Government Accountability’s lawsuit against the Governor’s Office for failure to timely release records related to DeSantis’ stunt using Florida taxpayer money to gather up migrants in Texas and fly them to Massachusetts.
The lawsuit has unearthed shocking details that might otherwise never have been revealed — including the fact that one of DeSantis’ top aides used a secret, pseudonym email account to help a politically connected former client win a contract running the migrant-smuggling operation.
And that’s just one example, of course. Thanks to Florida’s public-records laws, we know that lobbyists for the nursing home industry helped write a new law weakening staffing standards for nursing homes; that DeSantis’ office proposed delaying a gas-tax break until it was most helpful to the governor’s re-election campaign; and that lobbyists for gas stations and convenience stores wrote a law making themselves more money off the Florida Lottery.
Public corruption has consequences (sometimes)
This is a lesson that politicians in both parties learned this year.
Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor who DeSantis defeated in 2018, was indicted on 21 federal charges related to funneling donations through third parties and back to himself for personal use.
Aaron Zahn, the former CEO of the Jacksonville Electric Authority, was indicted on charges related to what prosecutors cast as a scheme to enrich himself by selling the publicly owned power company to a private corporation (which would have been Florida Power & Light, had the deal gone through).
And Joe Harding, the former Republican lawmaker from Ocala who sponsored both the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and Power Design’s anti-minimum-wage bill, was indicted on charges that he stole $150,000 from federal taxpayers by taking out fraudulent loans through a program that was supposed to help small businesses survive the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gillum, Zahn and Harding have all plead not guilty. But a jury convicted Ben Paris, the former Republican mayor of Longwood and employee of Republican state Sen. Jason Brodeur, of illegally contributing to an independent candidate whose presence on the ballot was used to help Brodeur win election to the state Senate. One other person has pled guilty and three others are awaiting trial on other charges related to Florida’s 2020 “ghost candidate” election scandal.
And Joel Greenberg, the former Seminole County Tax Collector whose office was used as base for a breathtaking array of corruption and criminal activity, was sentenced to 11 years in prison, in a sprawling investigation that has also led to charges against at least five other people so far.
These investigations aren’t over yet, either.
A focus on farmworkers
This list is pretty heavy on defense and stopping bad bills from passing.
So let’s end with some offense. Specifically, on a campaign to protect some of the most vulnerable people in Florida: Farmworkers and other laborers who endure brutal working conditions in the steamy Florida heat.
For years, workers’ advocacy groups have been pleading with state leaders for help. Their request couldn’t be more basic: Water, rest, shade.
The movement took a modest, but important, step forward in 2022, when a committee in the Florida Senate heard a bipartisan bill to make employers in industries such as agriculture, construction and landscaping to provide simple, on-the-job protections — including access to clean, cold drinking water, and 10-minute breaks every 2 hours on high-heat days.
Now, the Senate only heard the bill in one committee. And Republican leaders in the House refused to hear it all.
But this was a walk-before-you-run moment (well, maybe a crawl-before-you-walk one). And getting that first hearing on an issue where there has, at least historically, been intense corporate opposition behind the scenes is genuinely a big deal.
May the momentum continue in the New Year.