U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio reaches out to small business owners in Orlando.

The next great oil spill -- a container of milk? It sounds silly, but U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio says the Environmental Protection Agency wants to regulate milk for its oil content.

ORLANDO – One way the federal government can help create jobs and spur more business growth would be to eliminate onerous federal regulations that impose heavy costs and burdens on small businesses, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said today.
“The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has now said there’s oil in milk, so they’re giving themselves the ability to regulate milk because there’s oil in it and there might be a situation where the milk spills,” said Rubio, who was elected Florida’s junior senator last fall. “You think this is a Monty Python skit, but it isn’t.”
On Thursday, Rubio met with small business owners at the office of the Orlando Chamber of Commerce. During this Small Business Forum, Rubio urged businesses to let his office know whenever they’re struggling with a bizarre federal law that makes it difficult for them to operate their company.
“I am always looking for crazy regulations that we can call people on and say ‘This is crazy,’ “ Rubio said. “We are constantly on the lookout for these kinds of things.”
Rubio was recently named to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and held the forum in downtown Orlando to seek ideas on how Washington could take a more pro-growth approach, one that creates an environment conducive to job creation. As Rubio noted, small businesses are the engine of this nation’s economic success and shouldn’t be weighted down by burdensome federal regulations.
“I want to continue this dialogue on an individual basis, and a collective basis as well,” he said.
Rubio said he’s already aware of some instances where federal rules hurt small companies, including the uncertainty of where the tax rates will be from one year to the next.
“It’s all a revenue-driven process,” he said. “In an ideal world, your tax rate would be low, stable and easy to deal with.”
But the rules change constantly, along with the seemingly endless number of tax exemptions, which helps create anxieties for businesses wondering what they still qualify for, he said.
“There are entire businesses that are built around certain tax exemptions,” Rubio said. “You just don’t know what it’s going to be next year.”
Rubio said he’s fed up with the ability of so many federal agencies to issue sweeping new regulations without first getting approval from the White House or Congress. He’s filed a bill to change that.
“The rule-making power of the agencies is too expansive,” he said, adding that under his proposed legislation, “Any rule that they promulgate that has an impact of $100 million or more a year, it has to get congressional approval first. Every day you read about something that makes no sense. It would be funny if it wasn’t really happening.”
Many of these rules raise the cost of production – costs that hurt businesses, eliminate jobs and pass on inflationary prices to consumers, he said.
“Our ability to grow and produce is getting more and more expensive every day in this country,” Rubio said. “That, as much as anything else, is weighing down on our country.”
Another huge problem, Rubio said, has been Washington’s lackadaisical attitude toward the nation’s soaring budget deficit, now at $14 trillion. He noted that Congress often turns to a “continuing resolution” when a budget hasn’t been passed. A continuing resolution is a spending bill that funds government agencies and existing federal programs if a formal appropriations bill hasn’t been signed into law yet.
Families struggling to pay their own bills and having to make tough choices on what to cut from their own household budget can’t grasp this concept, he said.
“I have a problem telling people what a continuing resolution is because there’s no real world equivalent,” he said. “We will hit the statutory debt limit sometime this year, which means the federal government will have to raise the debt limit again.”
When members of Congress talk about cutting spending, they often evade mentioning the toughest decisions they’re facing: how to contain the skyrocketing costs of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
“We can cut our discretionary spending by 10 to 15 percent,” Rubio said. “It doesn’t get you anywhere. The bulk of our debt is in the entitlement programs. The problem is Social Security is now running a deficit. There isn’t going to be a Social Security for us when we retire.”

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Osceola County moves toward establishing its own Expressway Authority.

Central Florida may need more highways to reduce traffic congestion. But the question facing Osceola County officials is: where is the money coming from to pay for the new roads?

KISSIMMEE – As the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority struggles with the issue of postponing a scheduled toll hike in 2012, neighboring Osceola County is in the infant stages of putting together its own board to propose roads that needed to be built in the future.
Last year, the Florida Legislature approved a bill allowing for the creation of the Osceola County Expressway Authority. It separates Osecola County from the Orlando/Orange County Expressway Authority and allows Osceola officials to set guidelines for the highways that go through the county. It also gives Osceola the ability to establish tolls to pay for these road improvement projects.
This is a way for Osceola County to chart its own destiny, said state Rep. Mike Horner, R-St. Cloud, who co-sponsored the bill to create the county’s own Expressway Authority. At the moment, he said, the county is still forming the authority’s governing board.
“It hasn’t been formed yet,” Horner said. “They’re still in the process of putting together the authority.”
But while keeping in mind that no one likes to pay tolls, Horner said it was too early in the process for anyone to be complaining about the possibility to toll roads being built in Osceola.
“That’s something the authority would decide, what roads to build and how to pay for it,” Horner said. “But it wouldn’t change any existing tolls.”
Toll roads, Horner said, are the most direct form of user fees – if people want to use the road, knowing it has tolls, they can, and if they don’t want to pay the toll, they can take a different route.
“That’s how it works,” Horner said. “You don’t put tolls on any road you want. You just put tolls on roads built with tolls. Right now, there’s no tolls to raise. We haven’t built any roads yet. But there’s only so many ways to pay for roads.”
This has been a particular challenge for Osceola County, ever since the housing market went bust. Traditionally, Osceola County relied on two areas — tourism and home building — as the mainstays of the local economy. Both have been hurt by the downturn in the economy.
When the housing market was still booming, Osceola was among the top three fastest growing counties in the nation. To handle growth, commissioners responded by imposing impact fees. Those are fees imposed on the sale of newly constructed homes, paid for either by the developer or, in most instances, fees passed on to the buyers.
Those fees were supposed to be used to pay for needs that growth produced – such as new schools, libraries and expanded roadways.
But when the housing market tanked, and the home building industry collapsed along with it, the impact fee money dried up as well.
As a result, Osceola commissioners were forced to take a different approach last year. Commissioners placed a referendum on the county ballot for voters to decide that would have established a 1-cent sales surtax to improve a series of local roads.
Counties have the discretion to increase sales taxes. The referendum would have raised Osceola County’s sales tax from 7 percent to 8, the highest in the state. But it proved to be a tough sell in a bad economy, and it lost on Nov. 2 when 70 percent of Osceola voters rejected the amendment.
That’s left the county without a clear funding mechanism for new road projects.
That’s why tolls may be the fairest way to get new roads built in Osceola, Horner said.
“If the Expressway Authority gets created, they will build roads that the public wants,” Horner said. “If people don’t want to pay tolls, they don’t have to ride on those roads.”
Horner also notedthat having the county invest in road projects will create thousands of new road construction jobs for an area still suffering from a double-digit unemployment rate.
Thomas R. Kohler, a principal with the firm of Real Estate Research Consultants in downtown Orlando, is now working with the city of Kissimmee and Osceola County on an analysis of U.S. 192. RERC is studying how the county could boost economic development opportunitites there. Kohler said the region has a window of opportunity to make improvements to the transportation infrastructure network that services residents and visitors alike.
“I use the term access and mobility,” he said. “High speed rail and SunRail will appeal to the international traveler who is used to that. That is a real opportunity for the Central Florida community.”
The high speed rail system would run from Cocoa Beach to Orlando and over to Tampa, with stops at Orlando International Airport, Walt Disney World and Lakeland. But its future is in doubt, since Gov. Rick Scott has questioned the cost of this project.
SunRail is a 61-mile commuter rail line that would run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then continue on to the Poinciana Industrial Park.
These projects help the region, Kohler said. Being a popular tourist destination means the region will continue to attract visitors, he noted, and he recommended that counties start questioning how solid their highway network is.
“I think we’re in a real interesting period of time where access and mobility go together and play off this tourism industry we have here,” he said.

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Mortgage tax break may be on the chopping block, leaving the housing recovery in question.

Could vacation home or high end communities across Central Florida suffer if the government eliminates the mortgage interest deduction?

FOUR CORNERS – For years, Central Florida’s economy boomed thanks to “growth” – the notion that people moving to this region needed new homes, so builders stayed happily employed constructing developments to meet their needs.
The state and national housing market still haven’t recovered from the bursting of the bubble in 2008 that left the state with one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the country, and the climb back to a stable market has been slow and painful.
Even so, any signs of a possible threat to the market make local Realtors feel nervous, and that’s certainly true with a proposal by a federal deficit reduction commission to take aim at the mortgage interest deducation that homeowners now take advantage of.
This deduction allows taxpayers who own their homes to reduce their taxable income by the amount of interest paid on their mortgage. The White House’s deficit reduction commission has proposed gutting some tax breaks, including the mortgage interest deduction, as a way to close the nation’s skyrocketing budget deficit.
That’s a proposal that some real estate agents worry may be misguided at a time when the housing market still hasn’t recovered.
“As far as homeownership, one of the sticking points for us is the mortgage interest deduction,” said Pete Howlett, a Davenport Realtor who runs Orlando Vacation Realty. “The government is thinking about getting rid of that, and that may impact the tax deductibility of people’s homes. That’s something they’re kicking around, and we’re pretty concerned about that.”
It should be a concern to Central Florida, said Matthew Bell, managing member of the CPA firm Bell & Van Grondelle in Four Corners.
The two groups most likely to be impacted, Bell said, are people who own vacation homes, and those in communities where houses start at $500,000 and up – both of which are easy to find in Central Florida.
“Probably 80 percent of the clients that we deal with get some kind of benefit from the mortgage interest deduction,” Bell said. “That is one of the factors that goes into play when Realtors talk to clients about buying a home. From what I can see, what they’re proposing is not really going to affect rental homes so much. That would be considered a necessary business expense.
“But it would apply to people who buy vacaction homes that they’re not renting out,” Bell added. “And I’m sure there are plenty of them.”
Four Corners has been a popular spot for vacation homes among British and other European buyers. But Bell added that the tax policy change, if enacted, “would actually affect Americans even more than folks overseas, because normally Brits are not going to have any other income they need to offset from vacation homes. But Americans want to be able to deduct the mortgage interest from a vacation home off their income taxes. That deducition would go away if this proposal went through. I certainly think it could hurt this area.”
The proposal, Bell said, also appears to be targeting high end developments.
“They (homeowners) would only be able to deduct the mortage interest on their primary residence for homes under $500,000,” he said. “Look at the New York or New Jersey metropolitan area where housing is very expensive, and those people would lose their mortgage interest deduction on their most expensive homes.”
It could also impact high end luxury developments in Central Florida, he said.
“Take, for instance, Bella Collina in Lake County,” Bell said. “There’s homes in there that at one pioint sold for over $5 million. People looking to possibly repurchase those homes, that will slow the redevelopment of those communities.”
State Rep. Mike Horner, R-St. Cloud, said he would need to research the issue some more before commenting on how it could impact Central Florida.
But he added that it points up two huge challenges for Congress and the White House: how to bring down the deficit without doing something that hurts the economy in the short run – such as raising taxes.
“We’ve got an exploding federal deficit and completely unmanaged debt that is ruining our country’s financial security,” Horner said. “I’m for things that reduce the deficit.”
But at the same time, he added, eliminating the mortgage interest deduction could simply amount to a tax hike for homeowners.
“I’m against raising new taxes,” he said.
Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party and host of the Lady Liberty Hour, said she also opposes tax increases. But she said eliminating not just the mortgage interest tax deduction but also scores of other special interest tax breaks could solve a larger purpose: to eliminate the federal government’s ability to use tax policy to control people’s decision-making.
“Actually, the mortgage interest deduction is a common example of corporate welfare,” Dunmire said. “Anybody who has a home has been able to deduct the interest for many years. It used to be that all interest for any source of borrowing was a deduction. When people purchased cars, when they had credit cards, everybody was always able to deduct their interest. That changed in the 1980s when they redid the IRS code, and then it only got limited to mortgages.”
Getting rid of this deduction won’t do much to eliminate the federal debt, Dunmire added, but it could help empower consumers if the federal government took a cue from the Tea Party and instead adopted a Fair tax, or tax on goods sold – a kind of national sales tax that eliminates the complexities of today’s lengthy tax code.
“I don’t look at it as a rich versus poor issue, as much as what are we trying to do with our society,” Dunmire said. “What are we trying to encourage? In the past, we as a society have tried to really encourage home ownership, but I personally think they should look at all the ways the government has tried to influence the housing market — and made a mess of it. I am an advocate for the Fair Tax. I am all for doing away with all of these deductions, which are the government trying to make decisions on how we live, rather than all of us deciding how we live. This is all about a government policy to have you behave in a certain way. We are using our government policies to influence how people make decisions, and it corrupts and alters sound decision making.
“The way it is now,” Dunmire added, “the tax codes are designed for special interest groups. It is being done for all the wrong reasons. With the end of these tax deductions, no one is a special interest anymore. We’re all just consumers.”

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