By Christine Sexton, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A coalition of business interests Monday released a far-ranging wish list for Gov. Ron DeSantis and state legislators to consider in 2021, including revamping alcohol laws, changing tax policy and providing broad immunity from lawsuits stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The future of Florida is glowing bright, and it is the hope of the … task force that COVID-19 has only served as a bump in the road,” said the 74-page report issued by a group calling itself the RESET — an acronym for Restore Economic Strength through Employment & Tourism — Task Force.
The group is co-chaired by executives from Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Retail Federation and the National Federation of Independent Business Florida, but it was comprised of more than 60 associations that represent employers from the health care, agriculture, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing and retail sectors, among others.
While the task force packaged the recommendations as helping the economy as Florida continues to struggle with the pandemic, critics said many of the recommendations have been considered by the Legislature for years and are not unique to COVID-19 or the economic damage caused by it.
“This is a complete wish list from the state’s largest corporations and includes proposals that are not even COVID-19 related,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who noted that the recommendations include a reduction in the aviation fuel tax, an annual legislative battle in recent years.
“It’s very much the same old, same old. And it’s frustrating and alarming because all of this is grounded in what the largest corporations have wanted for a long time and using the pandemic to try to get these goals accomplished,” Eskamani told The News Service of Florida.
The task force wants the Legislature to make permanent an “alcohol to go” policy that was first approved in a COVID-19 executive order and allows restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages with to-go food orders. The policy started as a way to help restaurants suffering because of the pandemic.
“Not only was this a lifeline for struggling businesses, but this had the practical impact of demonstrating that some of the existing regulations surrounding alcohol are antiquated and no longer necessary,” the report said.
In addition, the group recommends changing a law to allow delivery drivers in restaurant-owned or leased vehicles or delivery drivers who work for third parties to deliver alcohol.
Another restaurant friendly recommendation the group supported was a short-term sales tax holiday on food and drinks sold in restaurants. The holiday would be implemented when it is safe to encourage people to go out and eat.
The task force also is pushing the Legislature to provide broad COVID-19 lawsuit protections for businesses, something that DeSantis said in September he supported for “run of the mill businesses.”
The report recommends that the Legislature exempt “essential businesses” entirely from COVID-19 liability. While legislative leaders indicated support for some sort of liability protections, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, stopped short of supporting complete immunity.
“Any legislation we would pass, I cannot imagine that we are going to let people off the hook for negligence,” Simpson told reporters following a Nov. 17 organization session of the Legislature. “I don’t think you ever in any condition put a blanket statement that no one would have any liability associated with COVID.”
Also, to protect other businesses from “frivolous” lawsuits, the task force wants lawmakers to raise the legal bar for culpability in COVID-19 claims from simple negligence to gross negligence. Also, changes would up evidentiary standards for COVID-19 claims from a current “greater weight of the evidence” standard to “clear and convincing evidence.”
The report includes a number of tax recommendations, including proposed reductions in the corporate income tax, the communications services tax and taxes on leased or rented commercial property.
But the task force also is recommending changes on the other side of the ledger that would increase the amount of money the state collects. The group wants the state to collect what state economists estimate is $700 million by requiring all remote and online sellers to collect and remit to the state sales taxes. Currently, many out-of-state firms do not collect and send in sales taxes when they sell products to Floridians online.
The report also addresses a number of other issues that concern businesses, not the least of which is the Unemployment Trust Fund. which is supported in part by taxes paid by businesses. The state has paid out billions of dollars in unemployment compensation after the pandemic caused job losses.
“Should funds be needed for the trust fund moving forward, and clearly it is being depleted, business will be hit with a huge and unexpected tax from the government to replenish the fund. Florida should find another way to make this fund whole, rather than harming businesses that are already reeling from the effects of the pandemic,” the report said.
Additionally, the report addresses a recently approved constitutional amendment that will gradually increase Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, effective Sept. 30, 2026. The report said “the impact of this amendment passing will be devastating to the creation of jobs in Florida,” but it did not make recommendations.
NFIB Florida Executive Director Bill Herrle acknowledged that after voters approved the constitutional amendment Nov. 3, there was “talk” among business interests but said it was just that.
“I can tell you that there’s no silver bullet out there to stop this,” said Herrle, whose group opposed the amendment. “We find it pretty constitutionally sound, and any changes would be difficult if not impossible for the Legislature to make.”