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- 2010 - February - 11th -

Unemployment tax fix, PSC overhaul in senate’s first week

by David Royse
The News Service of Florida

The Senate will answer an outcry from the business community on the first day of the legislative session, planning to pass a bill to delay an increase in unemployment taxes, Senate Pres. Jeff Atwater said Tuesday.

Then the Senate will take the side of the consumer, taking up in the first week of session an ethics bill for the Public Service Commission, Atwater said in an interview.

Answering a clamor for tax relief and taking up a broadly popular ethics bill couched as pro-consumer so early in the annual session make it far more likely that the two measures will pass.

But it also will generate some positive headlines for the Senate as Atwater runs for chief financial officer, good vibes that may be hard to otherwise come by in a year that will be dominated by difficulty as lawmakers come into session seeking to erase a $3 billion deficit without tax increases.

The unemployment tax issue is probably the highest immediate priority in the business community. With jobless rolls spiking this winter, the trust fund into which businesses pay unemployment claims has gone into the red, forcing the state to borrow from the federal government to pay jobless benefits, but also triggering an automatic tax increase that will mean twelvefold bumps in taxes for some employers.

Those tax bills are due April 1, but the measure Atwater intends for his chamber to pass on March 2 would delay payment due dates. House Speaker Larry Cretul has also said that the issue is a top priority in his chamber.

“We are still deeply in an environment of challenge for business owners,” said Atwater (R-North Palm Beach). With no delay in the tax increase, the ironic result may be that businesses may have to lay off more employees, he said. “It is our intention to pass that bill on the first day.”

Atwater said the broad measure seeking to prevent ethical abuses in utility regulation would likely include much of what was in recommendations from a 1992 grand jury after a previous scandal involving ethics at the PSC. That report was never addressed, but some of the same issues came up again this past fall. Much of the discussion has been about off-the-record communication between commissioners and staff members on the one hand and officials of the regulated utilities. The bill (SB 1034) that’s being sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey), would prevent staff from having ex parte communications with company officials. Currently, commissioners are banned from such discussions, but not staff.

The PSC has also made its own recommendations for how it should be governed, and included in its proposal a penalty for utilities — not just PSC officials — when such ex parte communications are discovered. Fasano said Tuesday that he’s likely to go along with several proposals from the PSC and put them in the final bill.

Another PSC proposal is to ban former commission staff from lobbying the executive or legislative branches for four years.

Atwater said that the Senate also plans in the first week of session to designate a road in the Jacksonville area for former Senate Pres. Jim King, who died last year. The measure (SB 176) by Sen. Steve Wise (R-Jacksonville), unanimously cleared its only committee assignment and is on the Senate floor calendar.

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