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Did Sen. Nelson Vote For Tax Hikes 349 Times? PolitiFact Florida Weighs In With A Ruling

Screen capture from a Rick Scott for Senate ad
Screen capture from a Rick Scott for Senate ad

Did Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson really vote to hike taxes nearly 350 times while in Washington D.C.? And did he really  stop oil drilling off Florida's Gulf coast? WUSF's Steve Newborn gets to the bottom of these claims with Allison Graves of PolitiFact Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott has spent millions over the airwaves in his quest to take over the U.S. Senate seat held by "career politician" Bill Nelson. Here's one snippet:

"And besides reading speeches, what's Nelson done all those years? 349 times, he's voted for higher taxes."

Nelson's been in the Senate and in Congress since the 1970s, but 349 times?  Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:


For years, Republicans have criticized Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for voting to raise taxes again and again.

Nelson's opponent in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, Connie Mack, claimed Nelson raised taxes 150 times. That number grew to 272 before the November 2012 election. Now, Nelson’s current competitor, Gov. Rick Scott, is upping the ante in a new television ad.

"Forty years later, a lot of things have changed, but Bill Nelson is still in Washington," the narrator says. "Still collecting a paycheck. Besides reading speeches, what’s Nelson done all those years. 349 times he’s voted for higher taxes."

More than half of votes on his list are Democratic budget resolutions, which set nonbinding parameters for considering tax and spending legislation. So it's technically incorrect to say the budget resolution will raise, lower or even keep taxes the same. Budget resolutions do not change tax law.

Joshua Gordon, policy director of the Concord Coalition, a group that urges deficit reduction, offered another important distinction. "Voting to lessen the size of a tax cut in a budget resolution is also not voting for a tax increase," Gordon told us.

Scott’s tally makes the additional mistake of counting multiple votes on the same budget resolution. For example, Scott’s list includes nine votes Nelson took on a 2008 budget resolution. Again, those votes do not alter how much in taxes anyone pays.

Overall, we found that nearly half of all the votes Scott counted were from non-binding resolutions.

The mathematical gymnastics continues in other parts of Scott’s list. Scott’s tally includes multiple votes on the other pieces of legislation. It’s common for senators to take multiple votes as both parties engage in maneuvering and introduce competing amendments.

Besides tallying tricks, Scott’s statement omits that Nelson has sometimes voted in favor of tax cuts. Nelson voted for President Ronald Reagan’s major tax cut package in 1981 and Nelson also voted to extend President George W. Bush-era tax cuts in 2006 and 2010. Nelson also supported the 2009 stimulus package, which included more than $200 billion in tax cuts.

We rate this claim False.

Sen. Nelson has also taken claim for stopping oil drilling off the state's coastlines.

In June, he said he "wrote the bipartisan law that makes it illegal to drill off Florida’s coast." This was part of an ad that accuses Gov. Scott of supporting offshore drilling even after the BP oil spill.


Is that true? Here's P olitiFact Florida's ruling:


In 2006, Nelson teamed up with former Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez to cosponsor a piece of legislation known as the Permanent Protection for Florida Act of 2006 ( S.2239).

That bill aimed to prohibit offshore drilling on the outer Continental Shelf near Florida. Specifically, the bill put a moratorium on issuing a lease for the exploration, development, or production of oil, natural gas, or any other mineral off much of the coast of Florida until June 30, 2020.

Frank Jackalone, the director of Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, praised Nelson and Martinez when the bill was introduced. (The Sierra Club endorsed Nelson).

"Last week our Florida senators introduced legislation that would head off these threats by providing permanent protection for Florida’s coasts and extended protection for the remaining moratoria areas," Jackalone said in a speech he gave at the time "... He and Senator Nelson have given us a wonderful example of bipartisan leadership that puts Florida’s economy and environment first."  

That bill was introduced in the Senate but did not get a hearing and never made it to law. So can Nelson really take credit for signing the bipartisan law that makes it illegal to drill off Florida’s coast?

Although Nelson and Martinez’s legislation was not signed into law, similar ideas were included in a section of another bill known as the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 ( S.3711), which was sponsored by former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

That bill enacted a moratorium on drilling within 230 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles from the Panhandle until June 2022, among other things. It was signed into law Dec. 20, 2006.

The bill didn’t have Nelson’s name on it, but each bill aimed to protect Florida’s Gulf Coast for oil drilling by placing a moratorium on issuing a lease for the exploration, development, or production of oil, natural gas, or any other mineral.

Alyson Flournoy, a law professor at the University of Florida, said that if the language of Nelson’s bill was included in the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006, we would treat Nelson as the author of that part of the law.

And even though the law was not an exact copy, environmental experts agreed that Nelson deserves credit for writing the bipartisan law that makes it illegal to drill off Florida’s Gulf coast.

We rate this claim Mostly True

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.