By Sadaf Knight, Chief Executive Officer at Florida Policy Institute – March 31, 2022
If there was any state that embodied the spirit of excess that characterized the Roaring Twenties, it was Florida. In the earlier part of the 20th century, development of Florida’s coasts was already well underway, driven by prominent industrialists Henry Flagler and Henry Plant, who had built railroads and luxury hotels that attracted wealthy tourists. The land boom of the 1920s took Florida’s hunger for development to a frenzy. Speculators and investors bought up properties, as prices were driven up higher and higher. The rise of the automobile and development of interstate highways led to an era of “tin can tourism” — waves of vacationers traveled down in modified cars to explore Florida, leading to an entire tourism industry to be built up around them. Tourists flooded the state, and at the start of the 1920s, 500,000 people were visiting Florida annually. By 1925, this number ballooned to 2.5 million. Meanwhile, the year-round population also continued to increase. One observer noted that the state “acted as though it were on a glorious bender – beautifully intoxicated and wildly hysterical.”
Although this boom would not last forever — by 1926 it had collapsed — the building of roads to facilitate tourism and travel was the top issue leading into the 1924 Florida election. During that election, the state Legislature placed on the ballot a measure (Amendment 1) that would come to largely define Florida: it prohibits the imposition of personal income or inheritance taxes. The thinking was that without these taxes, Florida would be able to attract wealthy residents, who would in turn bring with them capital and economic growth. These two issues represented both sides of Florida’s state budget — on one side of the ledger, a measure to permanently restrict the state’s revenue sources, and on the other side, a call for massive public spending on infrastructure needed to accommodate the state’s growth.
A look at the arguments in favor of both issues at that time seem like echoes of the arguments in favor of low taxes and increased development that are employed by their proponents today. And in the 1920s, as it is today, tax and budget policy decisions were both fueled by and reinforce inequities along racial and ethnic lines that are at the foundation of Florida’s economy.
1924: Taxes, Roads, and Prison Labor
In the months before the 1924 election, newspapers across the state expressed their support for Amendment 1, as did most of the gubernatorial candidates at the time. Most of these candidates also pledged to accelerate the development of roads. John W. Martin, who would win the election, was a big proponent of both:
“With the election of a governor dedicated to promoting the boom economy and with taxes on inheritances and incomes removed, the Florida ‘boom in paradise’ shifted into high gear. And with the inauguration of Martin’s ambitious roadbuilding program and the expectations of Floridians rising over the prospects of increased industry and tourism, Florida leaped from its past agricultural orientation into a modern, urban-oriented future.”
During his campaign, Martin was outspoken in his criticism of the State Road Department, which he felt had not acted quickly enough to meet the growing demand for paved roads — something that resonated with voters. How he would accelerate road development was also aligned with the prevailing practices at that time, particularly in the South: utilizing the forced labor of incarcerated individuals. He criticized Raiford Prison for losing revenue by putting incarcerated Floridians to work on prison farms, which he characterized as “raising cotton for the boll weevils and vegetables in competition with the farmers of the state.” Putting them to work building roads, he believed, would make the prison a revenue-generator for the state.
Thus, in the early 20th century, the budget balancing act was achieved in part by exploiting the labor of prisoners. These Floridians, often imprisoned under specious charges under Florida’s Black Code laws, built Florida’s roads and infrastructure under unimaginable conditions. The Gainesville Sun describes the conditions of convict labor camps of the early 1920s:
“… a loophole in the 13th Amendment allowed the state to profit off forcing prisoners, most of them black, to work. The men lived in filth and had little to eat. They were arrested on frivolous or petty charges and made to pay off their debts working long hours in the sun. Those who didn’t faced whippings, beatings and torture.”
Before 1923, this occurred through “leasing” out the forced labor of prisoners, but even after it was abolished, the same practices persisted through chain gangs, or groups of prisoners chained together to build roads under the threat of punishment or even death.
It was common for local authorities to increase arrests of Black men for bogus infractions such as “vagrancy” in order to meet the demand for convict labor. This was found to be the case, for example, with the sheriff of Leon County during mid-1920s. Similarly, a study of the City of St. Petersburg found that a wave of arrests of Black people in the 1920s corresponded to labor shortages during the real estate boom: “Black muscle was critically needed on construction sites, and police raids and vagrancy arrets helped fill a portion of the gap.”
Voters’ decision to constitutionally prohibit personal income and inheritance taxes cannot be viewed outside of this broader context. The state wanted to attract new, wealthy residents and the land boom necessitated massive infrastructure development. The exploitation of prison labor, fueled by racist Black Code laws, enabled both of these goals, and ultimately, many Black Floridians paid with their lives to make Florida a “low tax” state.
Echoes of the Past in Modern Debates
Floridians have yet to vote again on the personal income tax or inheritance tax; the prohibition remains in our state constitution. But each year, lawmakers propose new tax breaks that further chip away at the state’s revenue base. The questions of who benefits from these tax reductions and who ultimately pays remain as relevant today as they were in the 1920s.
In 1924, the arguments in favor of Amendment 1 were aimed at attracting wealthy people to Florida who would then, supposedly, transform their wealth into the economic engine for the state. Not much has changed in the rhetoric that surrounds tax policy today. Proponents of reducing taxes often focus on Florida’s competitiveness in terms of attracting visitors, new residents, and most critically wealthy businesses to the state. By keeping taxes low, these businesses and individuals will help drive the economy toward growth, which, according to this theory, will provide benefits for all Floridians. This theory is not often borne out, as inequity still undergirds Florida’s tax system and economy.
Today’s Target: Corporate Income and Sales Taxes
Without a personal income tax, tax policy debates today take aim at the corporate income tax and sales tax. Just like in the 1920s, these tax cuts by and large benefit the wealthiest corporations, their shareholders, CEOs, etc. Most businesses in Florida are exempt from the corporate income tax, and of those who are not exempt only one out of 10 owes anything in corporate income taxes. In fact, it is only the wealthiest of corporations that owes any corporate income tax at all and that’s who would benefit from cutting these taxes.
With no personal income tax and a shrinking corporate income tax, Florida relies heavily on the sales tax for the vast majority of the tax revenue that is collected, which disproportionately impacts low- and moderate-income households and in particular, Black and Latino/a Floridians. The reputation of Florida as a “low tax” state once again is misleading. Florida’s “upside-down” tax code is actually a high tax state for Floridians of color and Floridians with low income. As stated in a recent FPI report, “This imbalance in Florida’s tax code suppresses the prosperity of a diverse group of families making low- to moderate-income while benefiting the state’s more affluent and predominantly white Floridians with high income.”
As the state continues to chip away at Florida’s revenue base to benefit a wealthy few, it has also sustained disinvestments in vital public services to balance the budget. People of color and people with low income are disproportionately impacted by these funding cuts in every area of investment from education and healthcare to housing and worker protections, and more.
More than Dollars and Cents
Tax and budget policies are not simply about funding allocations; they are intrinsic to the priorities of the state and a reflection of its values. A look at the arguments in favor of low taxes shows that history does repeat itself. Tax cuts are presented as the best way to spur economic growth; but as history illustrates the fruits of this growth are not shared by everyone. Moreover, when it comes to who pays, it often has been at the expense of the livelihood and lives of Black Floridians. By fixing our upside-down tax code and making bold investments in people and communities, lawmakers can reduce longstanding disparities, promote dignity for all Floridians, and prime Florida for lasting, shared prosperity.