Point of View: 40 years of being the Florida taxpayers’ eyes and ears
Opinion Editorial by Sen. George LeMieux | Palm Beach Post
In today’s world of immediate access to information and ten-minute news cycles driven by social media, it is easy to forget that when it comes to government policies, we are all playing the long game. Florida’s low-tax, business-friendly climate and taxpayer-friendly policies have allowed our state to become one of the most desirable places in the world to call home. But it was not always this way. On the way to becoming the Sunshine State we all know and love, there were more and higher taxes, a more volatile constitutional amendment process and less-informed elected leaders.
The beginning of the change for many of these issues was the creation of a group called Florida TaxWatch in 1979. Born out of a recognized need by leaders in the state senate and the business community, TaxWatch was founded on the principle that what government needs is an independent watchdog and taxpayer policy institution to keep them honest, a guide-dog to show them the right path, and a bird-dog to make sure that they are responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Did you know that at one point in Florida, you were required to pay state taxes on intangible property, such as stocks and bonds, copyrights, life insurance, and patents? You are already taxed on many of these items by the federal government, but Florida residents were paying double. Following several rate adjustments in the late 1990s, Gov. Jeb Bush in 1998 signed a bill containing most of the recommendations of a Florida TaxWatch task force, which began the march to the full repeal of the Intangibles Tax in 2006.
Did you know that prior to 2006, it only took a simple majority of voters to amend the state constitution? Arguably, this is how we ended up with some of our more infamous amendments finding their way into the budget, but today’s 60 percent threshold, passed by voters in 2006, with solid data and unrelenting advocacy of Florida TaxWatch.
TaxWatch was also there, leading the way, when our state was hit with the immediate effects of the 2008 Great Recession. As Gov. Crist’s chief of staff at the time, I can tell you, there was a good deal of panic over how to close what was becoming a multi-billion-dollar budget hole in the middle of the fiscal year. But coming to the rescue was Florida TaxWatch, releasing a detailed report outlining 42 measures that could be put in place to save money, avoid costs and maximize revenue of nearly $2 billion. Ultimately, more than $1.6 billion in long-term savings from that report were implemented, and we were able to pull the state out of the abyss.
Another five cost-savings reports followed in the years to come, and the Legislature implemented billions more in TaxWatch recommendations, keeping Florida citizens safe and whole while ensuring our budget was lean and efficient as we recovered from the crisis.
No matter the challenges over the last 40 years in Florida, TaxWatch has been there. From major issues like property tax reforms, budget deficits, to efforts to maximize the effectiveness of Florida’s education system, to transforming public schools with our great TaxWatch Principal Leadership Program and wise early childhood education, TaxWatch has been on the job.
Many in today’s world appear to believe that knowledge and expertise aren’t important, that longevity is a deficiency, and that problems can be fixed if you simply make enough noise, generate enough outrage. Real reform takes time, expertise, and a solid partner with a demonstrated ability to bring sound, evidence-based solutions to the table that will work for everyone.
GEORGE LEMIEUX, TALLAHASSEE
Editor’s note: LeMieux is a former U.S. Senator for Florida and chief of staff to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist overseeing all state agencies and operations.
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