State rep candidates squabble over tax cuts, Citizens insurance, voter suppression

The Sarasota Tiger Bay Club logo/via Facebook

Exactly two months before election day, four incumbent Republican state representatives and two Democratic challengers met on the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club stage to debate taxes, insurance, growth management, voter suppression and more.

The panel featured state Reps. Jim Boyd, Ray Pilon, Greg Steube and Doug Holder, as well as Adam Tebrugge (who is challenging Boyd) and Liz Alpert (Pilon’s November opponent).

The discussion (moderated by former state Sen. Lisa Carlton) kicked off with different takes on the future of Citizens Property Insurance Company, the nonprofit government corporation that insures more Florida property than anyone else. The Republicans on the panel all spoke about the need to entice private insurance companies to expand their offerings, a move they say would eventually give homeowners more affordable options, but they mostly failed to offer concrete proposals.

Tebrugge credited Citizens for keeping rates in check, while also calling for tighter regulations on private insurers. Holder acknowledged that it would take years before private sector competition would become strong enough to drive prices down.

The next question: “Will you be proposing or supporting any means to support job growth or economic development?” That gave the incumbents onstage the opportunity to tout the Legislature’s slash-and-burn approach to regulations, as well as the way it has managed economic development dollars.

Steube was the first to call for eliminating the corporate income tax, action which he says would attract out-of-state businesses. “I think it supports economic development,” he said. “People have been taxed and taxed and taxed to death.” He then pivoted to point out that the corporate income tax provides only $1 billion of the state’s $70 billion budget, anyway.

Both Alpert and Tebrugge said they were opposed to repealing the tax. “Corporations benefit more from the services that are provided,” Tebrugge said. “We don’t need to bribe them with the repeal of the corporate income tax. The state of Florida needs this revenue to support our schools.”

“Businesses, I think, pay a fair share in this community and in the state as well,” Boyd countered. “We need to provide ways to bring businesses in.”

Perhaps the most contentious moment came when the candidates were asked for their opinion on Florida’s controversial “elections reform bill” (Boyd’s phrase), which limited early voting hours, cracked down on voter registration groups and made it harder to change one’s registered address at the polls. Boyd said there was “an enormous amount of testimony” suggesting voter registration “mismanagement.”

In fact, very little evidence of voter fraud was presented to the Legislature during debate over the bill, which led critics to charge lawmakers with plotting to restrict the vote to increase Republican odds in the 2012 elections. Tebrugge hit upon that point in his comments. “Most of this bill was a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “It was clear that the majority party in the Legislature was trying to suppress the registration of voters around the state.”

That statement was met with both annoyed groans and scattered applause.

Throughout the event, the divide between the Republicans and Democrats was obvious. The Republicans were united in their faith that lower taxes will produce growth that will one day trickle down to average Floridians, while the Democrats insisted on investing in and protecting the state’s education system and infrastructure.

Event organizers missed a golden opportunity to ask some truly tough questions: Why is the Legislature consistently turning away federal dollars associated with the Affordable Care Act (unless they’re for abstinence education, of course)? Where do they stand on long-overdue ethics reform? What are they doing to combat Sharia? (Kidding — sort of — on that last one.)

One name that was largely absent from the debate: Rick Scott, who has worked hand in hand with the Legislature on many of its signature initiatives these last two years, and remains widely unpopular. Simple oversight, or conscious decision on the part of the Republican incumbents? Unclear. Also unknown: Can the Democrats successfully tie their opponents to Scott’s controversial tenure? We’ve got two months to find out.