Massive bills passed at the end of Florida legislative sessions are like onions: There have multiple layers to peel away, and they often bring you to tears.
School officials statewide are crying foul about an amendment tucked inside page 68 of a 118-page tax bill (HB 7087), which was approved on the last day of this year’s session and later signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott. The measure requires all county governments and school districts seeking to pass a sales tax initiative to undergo an extensive “performance audit” that must be completed 60 days before the election.
The issues to be examined include the “economy, efficiency, or effectiveness” of the proposed program and its “structure or design” to accomplish its goals; alternative methods of providing services; performance measures that will be used to monitor the program; and the “accuracy or adequacy” of public documents and reports related to the program and prepared by the local government.
There’s nothing wrong with increasing transparency in government, although the way it was accomplished is problematic. The new law injects uncertainty into what should be a decision by local officials and local voters. Local officials statewide said they weren’t even aware of the measure until after it passed.
Gumming up the works was the goal of the amendment’s author, Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, who is running for state agricultural commissioner. He opposes the Lee County School Board’s half-cent sales tax initiative, believing the district can find better ways to fund its needs. Rather than counting on a majority of local voters to agree with him, he employed his legislative influence to trip up the referendum at the state level.
First he got the Legislature to change the date on when a bill would become law, just so it would prevent the Lee County School Board from holding a special election for the sales tax in May. Then he crafted the audit amendment to force the school district to jump through hoops in hopes of derailing the ballot initiative this year.
The measure started as an amendment to a bill that passed the House but died in a Senate committee. Undeterred, Caldwell made sure his baby found a new home buried deep inside the giant tax bill, 7087.
Caldwell told the Fort Myers News-Press in February that he was “trying desperately not to make this personal” with the school board. It appears he failed mightily.
Alas, it’s not unusual for a state lawmaker to use personal pique over a hometown matter as justification for legislation that affects everyone in Florida. That’s why bills are frequently filed to limit or prohibit local control over everything from regulating vacation rentals, businesses and land use, to local bans on plastic bags and “back-in” parking at public garages.
Tallahassee clearly believes it knows best — even though its track record in these matters hardly inspires confidence — and doesn’t trust local voters to govern themselves without some help from outside and above. The goal of state laws should be to inform taxpayers, not deny them a choice.