Huh? Tom Lee says Lottery bill is a “tax cut”

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A bill that would limit the variety of Florida Lottery scratch-off tickets was cleared by a Senate panel on Tuesday after its sponsor curiously defined it as a “tax cut.”

The Regulated Industries Committee cleared the measure (SB 790) on an 8-2 vote, with Republican Sens. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Joe Negron of Stuart opposed.

It limits the “number of scratch-off games which may be available for sale by the (lottery) department at any one time” to no more than 20. “The department currently offers up to 75 different scratch-off games,” according to a staff analysis.

An amendment also adopted Thursday would hold ticket prices to no more than $10, rather than a $5 cap as originally proposed. Now, games cost as much as $25.

Bill sponsor Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican, said he was protecting the state’s poorest residents, whom he said the Lottery targets with its advertising to buy tickets.

“It doesn’t mirror the Lottery’s mission of maximizing revenue in a manner that, I believe, is consistent with the dignity of the state and the welfare of our citizens,” he said.

But state economists had calculated that the original bill would have cost the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund nearly $264 million next year. Lottery proceeds benefit education, funding scholarships and other programs.

That had Latvala furrowing his eyebrows.

“I would think you would be more acutely aware of the financial impact of this bill,” he told Lee, the Senate Appropriations chairman. “Did you already subtract this?”

Lee said he didn’t, then added, “Like you, I’m really committed to cutting taxes.” Latvala was momentarily dumbfounded.

“This is a tax cut?” Latvala said.

“Any time you put money back in the pockets of the people of this state … then that’s kind of a tax cut,” Lee said. “I’m just trying to take the broadest view … especially for those that need it the most.”

He later said money lost through the bill’s effect would have to be made up elsewhere in the state budget for 2016-17.

“We have somehow got ourselves addicted to lottery revenue,” Lee said, drawing an analogy. “As crass as it may sound, we could legalize public executions, sell the pay-per-view rights to HBO, and probably raise a lot of money for government. But it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

The bill next heads to the Finance and Tax Committee. A House companion (HB 607) has cleared the first of its three review panels.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.