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Gov. Scott signs manufacturing tax break into law

Friday, May 17th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A manufacturing tax break, one of Gov. Rick Scott’s two priorities this legislative session, is now law.

Scott signed the measure (HB 7007) on Friday and touted it during a stop at a Tampa manufacturing firm.

Under the new law, manufacturers won’t have to pay sales tax on equipment purchases for three years, beginning in April 2014. Scott had wanted to make the tax break permanent, but lawmakers gave him a three-year window instead.

The new law also creates a new nonprofit corporation to oversee money awarded to the state from lawsuits connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The manufacturing tax break was caught up in some late-night maneuvers during the final week of session. Two days before the session ended, Scott had to act on a campaign finance bill and an ethics measure that were priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Scott announced he signed the bills about half an hour after the House gave final passage to his manufacturing tax break.

But House Democrats believe the tax break, tucked into a 96-page economic incentive package, is not official because the bill did not receive a two-third majority vote.

The state constitution requires a two-thirds approval for tax-related items that cause counties or cities to lose revenue or reduce a tax in which the local governments share.

Weatherford insists that the tax break did not require the supermajority vote.

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Scott grumbles about his agenda adrift; hints at vetoes

Thursday, April 25th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott grumbled some and hinted Thursday at vetoing some hometown spending sought by top lawmakers if the Legislature fails to act on his legislative proposals.

Scott’s biggest pitch — drawing Medicaid dollars to expand health care for low-income Floridians — looks doomed in the House. The House also has allowed to languish Scott’s push to eliminate the sales tax for manufacturers buying new equipment.

Meanwhile, House and Senate budget negotiators also have dismissed Scott’s $2,500 across-the-board teacher pay raises. They want to hand out the dollars solely based on merit.

“In the budget, for the first time since 2006, we have a surplus. I want to make sure we spend the money well,” Scott told reporters. “So, I would expect, like I did the last two years….I want to make sure we get a good return on our investment.”

Asked if he has targeted some spending already, Scott said, “There’s a lot of projects in there. I’m going to look at them closely. Legislators, I’m sure will want to come explain some spending. I have my priorities. I want to do the right thing for this state.”

Senate rolls back vehicle fees, nixes insurance industry tax break

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida vehicle registration renewal fees would be rolled back – a savings of about $12 for drivers – under a measure unanimously approved by the state Senate this morning.

The state would make up the lost money – between $220 million and $230 million – by doing away with a decades-old tax break to insurance companies. Insurers who pay a state tax on insurance premiums get a rebate worth 15 percent of the salary paid to their workers.

Senate budget chief Joe Negron, who hatched the plan, told the chamber that insurance companies have prospered in Florida since the 1987 tax break went into effect. Lawmakers hiked the vehicle fees in 2009 as part of a budget-cutting exercise prompted by a prolonged dip in the state’s revenue collections. But the state’s financial situation is more robust this year, and lawmakers for the first time in several years have more money to spend.

The proposal makes a number of reductions in fees or taxes on vehicles, including:
_ Cuts $5 tax on new vehicle registrations in half to $2.50;
_ Decreases from $1.50 to $.50 fee charged for reflective material on tags and stickers;
_ Cuts in half the $4 “surcharge” on licenses.

Negron’s proposal, which doesn’t have a House companion yet, reduces the fee increases by 55 percent and would result in about $250 million going from insurance companies “into the pockets of hardworking Floridians,” he said.

The tax break has saved insurance companies more than $3.4 billion since it went into effect, Negron argued.

“I want them to be prosperous so they can collect premiums and pay claims,” Negron, R-Stuart, said. “But in looking at this tax break, from 1989 through today that has been worth $3.34 billion that we have subsidized the labor costs of the insurance industry…But as we sit here in 2013, I personally believe…we should take this do something for the men and women we represent.”

Insurance and business lobbyists opposed the measure, suggesting that doing away with the tax break could chase companies away or keep others from relocating in the state.

But Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, who described lobbyists’ rhetoric as “there’d be Armageddon if this passed,” said “it’s nice to finally call a bluff.”

But Sam Miller, executive director of the Florida Insurance Council, said the tax credit has helped produce jobs.

“It is not clear that repeal of the credit won’t endanger job creation. The state should move cautiously and be sure,” Miller said.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Scott keeps calm, carries on, despite priorities adrift

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott is being challenged by top lawmakers on his pitch for low-income health insurance and the lone issues he’s labeled legislative priorities — tax breaks and teacher pay.

But Scott Tuesday declined to bad mouth anyone, as the session lurches into its final two weeks.

About as threatening Scott got was in delivering a veiled hint that he’d veto the priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, which include revamping campaign finance laws and ethics changes.

But, Scoff quickly added, “I’ve been very clear…Everybody can have a successful session.”

Weatherford looms as Scott’s biggest obstacle, refusing to embrace his health insurance plan and allowing the governor’s tax break package to proceed at a glacial pace. The governor tried to use logic in convincing the House.

“We don’t have a choice about the taxes that are part of the president’s health law,” Scott said of the federal health care overhaul. “We do have a choice whether we cover individuals that today don’t have health care. I believe that while the federal government pays 100 percent, we should cover those who don’t have access to health care.”

Scott said he didn’t think he had to flex his muscles.

“The Senate president and speaker of the House know exactly where I stand on this, and I’m very hopeful that they’ll do the right thing,” he concluded.

The House has rejected a call by Scott and the Senate to enact a Healthy Florida plan that could draw billions of federal dollars to insure 1.1 million low-income Floridians. Instead, the House has recommended a more modest proposal that uses $247 million of state taxpayer dollars next year to cover 115,000 uninsured Floridians.

Scott, did, however, get slightly worked up over the House’s push for a 6 percent tuition increase for college and university students. Scott and the Senate have rejected that approach.

“I can’t believe that the House wants to increase tuition 6 percent,” Scott said. “Florida families can’t afford it….every time they raise tuition, which they’ve done for five straight years, it impacts the poorest families in our state and their ability to go to college.”

Later, Gaetz said he endorsed Scott’s handling of the delicate end-game negotiations with the House and Senate.

“I think it’s been a good approach….If he were all over us all the time, pounding away repetitively, redundantly on his issues, we’d be saying ‘he’s too heavy handed,” Gaetz said.

“I think the governor proposes, the Legislature disposes,” Gaetz added. “There’s no lack of clarity about where the governor stands at all.”

After years of bashing, Scott sends Obama ‘thank you’ letter on taxes

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Republican Rick Scott has spent much of the past few years ridiculing President Obama — leading the Conservatives for Patients Rights campaign against the federal health care overhaul and — as governor — refusing millions of dollars in federal grants linked to the effort.

But when the Democratic president proposed cutting the federal corporate income tax rate to 28 percent, he drew rare praise from his Florida antagonist. At the White House last Sunday for a Governors’ Association meeting, Scott gave Obama a letter thanking him for “taking this step in the right direction.”

“Given that the United States currently burdens companies with the second highest tax rate in the world, every tax reduction makes American businesses more competitive,” Scott said.

Scott is pushing legislation that would double the state’s corporate income tax exemption to $50,000, efffectively exempting about three-fourths of the companies that now pay the 5.5 percent levy on earnings. It’ll cost taxpayers about $30 million next year, legislative analysts said.

Lawmakers balked last year on Scott’s initial plan to for a big cut in the tax. But the governor said he remains committed to ending the tax, which formerly pulled almost $2 billion into the state budget.

Here’s Scott’s letter: Tax letter to POTUS


Partisan scuffle over privatization and tax breaks yields hot air and jerked knees

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich got the last word in a partisan flame war with Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner over firing prison workers vs. closing a corporate tax loophole.

Rich launched the skirmish when she fired off a statement accusing Senate President Mike Haridopolos of ignoring her proposal that would net $500 million a year by putting an end to the “water’s edge” tax break multi-state corporations receive but companies based only in Florida do not.

“If the Senate President is serious about reportedly fighting ‘like hell to try to find some savings,’ he needs to redirect the Senate’s aim to where the confirmed savings can be found,” Rich, D-Weston, said.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, estimates the state could save at least $16.5 million a year with a prison privatization measure that would outsource Department of Corrections operations in an 18-county region in southern Florida. The embattled proposal is now on hold in the Senate and prompted Haridopolos to eject Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, as chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee for his public vilification of the plan.

Gardiner accused Rich of employing a “knee-jerk, Democratic reaction” of raising taxes on already struggling Florida families and businesses. The Orlando Republican said the savings from the outsourcing would be better spent on education or health care in a time when lawmakers are fighting to close a $1.4 billion budget hole.

“It is irresponsible to trivialize a significant, multimillion-dollar savings,” Gardiner shot back in a statement. “It is my hope that we will soon see more solution-oriented language from the senator and less hot air.”

Rich didn’t leave it at that. She blamed her GOP counterpart of more “of the strong-armed tactics the Republican leadership is currently deploying to ram through” the privatization proposal.

“When a member of the Republican leadership deliberately distorts my words advocating for corporations to finally pull their own weight as a “knee jerk reaction” of “raising taxes” on Floridians, his so-called ‘response’ is not only wrong, but patently false. He’s correct, we ‘don’t need bills that raise taxes,’” Rich responded.

Rich’s proposal (SB 1590), which has not yet been heard in committee, levels the playing field for in and out-of-state businesses, she argued.

“Given the events Floridians have watched unfold this week – the inability to muster the votes to layoff thousands of corrections officers from their jobs, the punishment of a Republican Senator rightly critical of the prison privatization scheme, and now the accusation that Democrats want to raise taxes because the GOP so fears my legislation that could spare Floridians from the additional loss of critical services already cut to the bone – Senator Gardiner would do well to admit the real agenda behind their ‘teachers versus corrections officers’ privatization drive,” Rich said.

Stadiums as homeless shelters and free tickets for foster kids at blacked-out games

Monday, January 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Florida professional sports teams have ignored a 25-year-old law long enough, according to Sen. Mike Bennett, who wants to use the law to force the teams to refund some of the money taxpayers have spent subsidizing their stadiums.

Bennett’s using a little-known state law that now requires that any professional sports facility built with state money to be used as a homeless shelter except when the facility is being used for a specific event or activity to go after what he calls corporate welfare.

Bennettalso wants to fine the sports teams for blacking out local television coverage of the games and use the money from the fines to buy tickets to the games and give the tickets to foster kids or active-duty soldiers.

The sports franchises now get $166,000 per month in tax breaks for 30 years, Bennett said. The teams would be fined $125,000 for blacking out the games – something the state can’t stop, Bennett said.

“The theory is if we’re going to give them $166,000 per month for 30 years we cannot control what the NFL does. But we can fine them the $125,000. They’ll still get a little tax break of around $41,000. But we think there’s a lot of deserving children out here who would like to go to…see those games,” he said.

Under Bennett’s proposal (SB 816), approved unanimously by the Senate Community Affairs Committee this morning, the teams would have to repay up to nearly $300 million Florida the teams – along with counties and others – have received to build arenas if they don’t start complying with the law.

“All of the sports teams always preach up and down about playing fair. I think it’s fair that they follow the rules in their games and I think it’s fair that they follow the rules of the state of Florida,” Bennett, R-Bradenton, said. “We have spent over $300 million supporting teams that can afford to pay a guy $7, $8, $10 million a year to throw a baseball 90 feet. I think they can pay for their own stadium.”

Bennett, a long-time critic of using state funds to give tax breaks or other financial assistance to professional sports teams, said he has asked Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office to look into whether the state would actually be able to recoup the money from the teams as his bill proposes. If not, he said he’s prepared to pursue a class-action lawsuit against the teams.

“I cannot believe that we’re going to cut money out of Medicaid and take it away from homeless and take it away from the poor and the impoverished and we’re continuing to support people who are billionaires with the stadiums,” Bennett said.

So far, Florida taxpayers have contributed more than $261 million to 17 facilities throughout the state, including $37 million for Dolphin Stadium. St. Lucie County received nearly $1.3 million since 2007 to help cover the costs of a spring training ball park for the New York Jets.

The bill has three more committee stops in the Senate and has not yet been heard in the House.

House fires tax breaks back to Senate, without Jax dog provision. Quits

Saturday, May 7th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Shortly before 2 a.m., the Florida House voted 79-39 to approve the state budget — about 2 1/1 hours after the Senate and following some very hard feelings between the two chambers.

The House then took up the disputed tax break bill (CS/SB 7203) which included reductions for a Jacksonville dog track forced into the bill by Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

But the House remained angered by the Senate’s killing a pair of professional deregulation bills earlier in the night — with House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, saying that move broke an agreement between the two chambers.

“In light of the Senate’s inability to meet that obligation, I’ve decided that our chamber would take the high road…and send it all to the Senate tonight, and leave no ambiguity,” Cannon said.

The House took up the tax-break bill, voted to remove the Jacksonville track provision, repackaged the measure as HB 143 and sent it back to the Senate. With the budget behind them, and the tax-break package structured to their liking, Cannon and House members adjourned at 2:07 a.m., Saturday.


Scott gets his (downsized) corp tax break

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The Florida House approved a $30 million cut in the state’s corporate income tax Thursday, giving Gov. Rick Scott a small share of the deep reduction in the levy the first-year chief executive had sought.

In the usually heavily partisan House, many Democrats joined with ruling Republicans in sending the measure to the governor, who has said he sees the cut as a good first-step. The measure (CS/HB 7185) was OK’d 110-5.

“Florida’s open for business,” said Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale. “We’re cutting taxes.”

Scott sought a $459 million, first-year reduction in the state’s corporate income tax, by reducing the state’s 5.5 percent rate to 3 percent.

House and Senate budget-writers, though,  agreed only to a $30 million cut,  increasing the state’s exemption on corporate taxpayers.

Currently, businesses are exempt from the corporate levy if their payments would total less than $5,000. The legislation would boost that exemption to $25,000, with supporters saying it effectively exempts almost half of Florida’s 30,000 businesses now paying the tax, taking mostly smaller companies off the tax roll.

Rep. Steven Precourt, R-Orlando, sponsor of the measure, said it would save these companies an average $1,100-a-year.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the tax reduction will eventually help state lawmakers, by helping generated more tax dollars to fuel future budgets. Lawmakers this year struggled to close an almost $3.8 billion budget shortfall in the $69.7 billion spending plan awaiting a vote Friday, the session’s final scheduled day.

“Small businesses are tax collectors,” Baxley said. “I’ve got dozens of small businesses back home and they’ve shuttered their doors and they don’t send taxes to us anymore. That’s why we’re in a $4 billion hole.”

Only a handful of Democrats voted against the cut.

Among them was Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who said it would do little for businesses and was a move toward eventually eliminating the corporate levy — which he opposes.

Clemens said, “I appreciate the intent,” of helping small businesses. But he criticized lawmakers for not setting aside dollars for teacher merit pay and moving to cut unemployment compensation benefits for Florida’s jobless.

Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, said she supports the tax cut. But providing better financing for schools and health and human services is what will help businesses prosper, she said.

“We can’t take our eye off that ball,” Schwartz said.

Budget deal done — seasoned with pork

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

House and Senate budget negotiators reached a deal Tuesday morning on a state budget — after leaders broke an impasse over health and human services funding and also tucked millions of dollars in hometown projects into the spending plan to satisfy key lawmakers.

The deal keeps lawmakers on track for an on-time adjournment Friday, the final scheduled day of the session. It also may allow Gov. Rick Scott to claim a modest achievement — with $308 million in tax breaks tucked into the proposal.

That’s far from the $2 billion Scott demanded. But Senate budget-writer J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the first-year governor should be satisfied.

“We all fight hard for the things we believe in,” Alexander said. “But at the end of the day, I think the governor has got a lot of the things he’s interested in, including some reduction in the corporate tax.”

Scott came into the session seeking a more than $450 million cut in the corporate income tax. Instead, lawmakers have advanced a $30 million reduction — a level close to what they’re also setting aside for a three-day back-to-school tax holiday in late summer.

In other issues, the Senate abandoned its push to slash spending on the state’s Medically Needy and Medicare Aged and Disabled programs, which serve 90,000 severely sick and elderly Floridians. Instead, the programs have maintained current-year funding.

But hospitals will absorb an even deeper reduction in Medicaid rate payments than earlier proposed by either the House or Senate. Hospitals will lose 12 percent of state reimbursement payments and nursing homes will absorb a 6.5 percent reduction.

The budget deal also was flavored with pork.

 The University of South Florida’s Polytechnic college in Lakeland, which has long been helped by Alexander, drew a stunning $46 million in state funding in the budget — about one-third of the state’s Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) total — far outstripping the University of Florida, Florida State University and other bigger schools.

House budget chief Denise Grimsley, R- Sebring, also represents a district that includes a large chunk of Polk County.

“There’s a lot of advocates for every part of the budget,” Alexander said.

Three-day sales tax holiday looks like a deal

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011 by John Kennedy

House and Senate budget negotiators were near agreement late Wednesday on enacting a three-day, back-to-school sales tax holiday next summer.

The House agreed with the Senate’s proposed $25.6 million tax break, with further details still to be ironed out. But it looks like the second straight year of a consumer giveaway, brought back last August after a two-year absence is assured.

“We’re a great believer in a three-day sales tax holiday…and I think the House is, too. We’re probably in agreement on that,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who is leading Senate budget negotiations with the House over a wide range of tourism and economic development issues.

Still unsettled is Gov. Rick Scott’s push for organizing economic development agencies under a newly constituted Commerce Department. The House and Senate are at odds over how to structure the agency — headed by a secretary reporting to Scott.

The governor Wednesday also suggested he could scale-back his ambitions — perhaps leaving the state’s employment arm, the Agency for Workforce Innovation, out of the department, along with Visit Florida, the tourism organization.

Enterprise Florida, the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, and most of the Department of Community Affairs may all roll into the new Commerce Department, under varying proposals.

But one proposal by the House — and promoted by Scott’s office — looks like it faces long odds in the Senate. Scott and the House want the new commerce secretary to be able to have a salary supplemented by private-sector industries once job-performance standards are met.

Democratic Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood likened the proposal when first floated earlier this year, to ‘payola,’ recalling the radio pay-for-play scandals of the 1950s.

“There was some real concern about allowing someone to in effect be a regulator and also determine where incentives and economic development dollars would go, and then be compensated by some of those same private sector folks,” Gaetz said. “We have some real concerns…It’s very different from the Senate’s view of the matter.”

Scott’s proposed corporate income tax cut — a $333 million first-year reduction — also remains troubled in the Legislature.

Senate President Mike Hardipolos, R-Merritt Island, said about tax breaks, “there are a multitude of things that are on the table.” But the corporate cut may not be among them, he said.

“I know it’s the governor’s priority and we’re trying to get there to help him,” Haridopolos said. “But I’m in my eleventh session now. I’ve had very few people in my career come to me and say the reason why we are not coming to the state of Florida is the corporate tax rate.”

Forget tough times, GOP ready to spend $400K on ballot move

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The Republican-ruled House and Senate are proposing $1 billion in public school cuts, reductions in health and social service programs, and plenty more tight-fisted spending decisions as they struggle to close an almost $3.8 billion budget gap.

But GOP leaders are poised to spend $400,000 to get a likely popular tax break before voters early on next year’s election calendar.

Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, already tapped as a future House speaker, got his bill advancing a first-time home buyers’ tax break through the House Economic Affairs Committee on Tuesday, in a party-line vote.

Dorworth said the legislation (CS/HB 1053) advancing the tax break to next January’s presidential primary will allow buyers to take advantage of the reduction sooner. If approved by 60 percent of voters, the tax break would take effect in January, as opposed to January 2013, if it was left to be approved by voters in November.

Dorworth’s proposal was approved 10-5, with Democrats opposed. Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said putting the tax proposal on the early primary ballot wasn’t worth the extra cost — $400,000 for statewide advertising of the proposed constitutional amendment, according to analysts.

Among Democrats, there also was an undercurrent that the GOP was looking to get the tax-cutting approved early in an election year, to give them another voter-friendly issue to campaign on.

Dorworth refused to take the bait. “We think it belongs in a January or February vote,” he said.

Democrats, though, may still get the final say on this one. Dorworth needs approval of three-fourths of the House and Senate to get the tax measure on the presidential primary ballot. While vastly outnumbered, Democrats still have enough votes to keep the ruling party from reaching that high bar.

GOP leaders haven’t settled yet on whether to delay the presidential primary by a month to comply with Republican National Committee rules that prohibit other states from jumping ahead of early primaries planned for New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada.

 The proposed ballot measure is a rewrite of a constitutional proposal barred by the Florida Supreme Court from going before voters last year because of misleading ballot language.

The amendment proposes a tax break for first-time home buyers and lowers the annual cap on assessment increases for businesses, rental properties and vacation homes. The Florida Association of Realtors, a heavy contributor to the state GOP last year, has said the measure would revive home sales and attract new investors to the state.

Sorry boaters. Bye-bye marine tax holiday.

Friday, March 11th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A proposed three-month tax holiday in the Panhandle for marine-related goods – including boats – is off the table.

The tax holiday was stripped by Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, the sponsor of a package (SB 248) aimed at giving an economic boost to the seven Northwest Florida counties hard hit by last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil gusher.

The proposed tax break would have saved taxpayers more than $15 million next year, according to a Senate staff analysis of the measure.

If approved by lawmakers and the governor, the Panhandle will get $10 million next year to help the region diversify its tourism- and military-based economy, with another $20 million over the next two years.

But even that money won’t go as far as the bill originally intended.

At the request of Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who was out sick during the meeting, Gaetz offered an amendment to add Wakulla County to the list of seven counties – Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton – the money is earmarked for.

The measure would also steer three-quarters of any money Florida receives from payments from lawsuits or fines related to the lawsuit – which could amount to billions of dollars – to the same eight counties.

The committee also approved memorials to Congress asking the federal government to give an income tax exemption to those who received payments from BP for losses incurred because of the oil blast.

Senate prez dashes guv’s hopes for biz tax cuts

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 by Dara Kam

With a $3.5 billion budget hole looming, Senate President Mike Haridopolos said it’s highly unlikely that lawmakers will approve any new – or expand any existing – tax breaks for businesses.

That would put Gov. Rick Scott’s plans to do eventually do away with the state’s corporate income taxes on hold, at least for this year.

“I don’t see that happening at this point. That’s something I’d like to do. But we’re $3.5 billion short and the promise of no tax increases, I don’t see the math yet. But Rick Scott is a very able executive. If he and his budget team can find a way to make it happen, we’re going to be all ears,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters during a Q-and-A this afternoon.

No more tax breaks would also put on ice Scott’s proposed expansion of school vouchers paid for by businesses, one of the governor’s top priorities.

“There’s probably no bigger advocate of tax cuts in the legislature,” Haridopolos said. “I’m a big proponent of tax cuts. This is not a year I can afford to push them through.”

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