Saying they are moving to protect the "2nd Amendment right to bear arms," a House panel on Wednesday approved a measure that would place a lock box on the trust fund that is used to pay for processing concealed weapons permits as well as regulating private investigators and security officers. The bill is being sponsored by Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami and House budget chief.
This moves comes less than a year after the Legislature approved sweeping $6 million from the same trust fund only to have the decision vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist after an outcry from gun owners who said it was wrong to use money intended to process permits on other government expenses. The veto wound up costing Florida's schools $6 million.
Marion Hammer, the long-time lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsman of Florida, made it abundantly clear to legislators that her group would sue the state if the money was ever used for anything than processing concealed weapons permits. She explained that gun owners agreed to the fees back in 1987 in an effort to unify the permitting process across the state.
Hammer said when the money is "used for other purposes, they become an unauthorized tax on a constitutional right." (There is a sales tax charged on guns and ammunition, but Hammer said that is a tax on a product, as opposed to a tax on a constitutional right.)
If the bill, which is being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Charlie Dean, becomes law then the Legislature would have to pass another bill in the future order to sweep any excess amounts in the trust fund.The legislation was approved unanimously by the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee on Wednesday and has only one more stop before it heads to the full House.
This legislation of course raises a broader question of who's money is it anyway?
Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-West Palm Beach, wanted to offer up an amendment to Rivera's bill that would have authorized giving back trust fund money to "contributors on a pro rata basis." This led to a brief discussion about trust funds and whether lawmakers should routinely sweep excess amounts to help balance the budget. Last year the Legislature took $588 million from various trust funds.
Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach, insisted that the gun trust fund was a special case, arguing "that not all trust funds were created equal." Hammer added that while she thought it was bad to sweep any trust fund that her focus was on gun owners and that she didn't want Brandenburg's amendment tacked on to the bill. Brandenburg wound up withdrawing it.
But it worth noting that various interest groups - whether it's road builders, the insurance industry or home builders - have also complained that it's unfair to take money they pay and use it for other parts of the state budget.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said earlier this week that while he wants to prevent the sweeps of trust funds used for roads and affordable housing, he also added that he's not sure he wants to have a state law that would create a "cherry picking" of trust funds. (Again it is worth noting that some trust funds - including those pledged to pay bonds and those consisting of federal money - already have similar protections.)
Former Gov. Jeb Bush took a much different viewpoint. Bush's budget chief Donna Arduin tried unsuccessfully argue that it wrong to place so much of the state budget into a lock box. Instead state policy makers should have the flexibility to balance the budget with their existing resources. Ben Watkins, the head of Florida's Division of Bond Finance, told another House committee on Tuesday that it is good for the state's bond rating to be able to tell rating agencies that excess balances in trust funds can be used in financial emergencies.
There is also another question to consider: Is it right to raise taxes or fees on other Floridians when there is money sitting in state bank accounts that isn't being spent?
Rivera, like Poppell, insisted that the trust fund used to pay for processing permits was a special case because it dealt with gun ownership.