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    Taxed or not, TV stations set to attack

    Senate President John McKay's offer to preserve an advertising exemption doesn't placate critics.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 11, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- With TV stations ready to unleash hard-hitting ads blasting his tax plan as a hidden income tax, Senate President John McKay offered to consider preserving advertising's sales tax exemption.

    No deal, the stations said Thursday, unveiling harsh campaign-style ads that accuse McKay of promoting a "gigantic tax increase" that turns Florida taxpayers into "losers."

    "An income tax for many, and a gigantic tax increase for all Floridians," the narrator says. "Fight back." The ads give the Capitol phone numbers of McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney and urge viewers to call in their opposition.

    When the ads hit the airwaves next week, legislators will feel the full wrath of business opposition.

    The Florida Association of Broadcasters wants to rally opposition to McKay's plan as a way of keeping a tax exemption now worth $236-million a year.

    McKay wants to lower the sales tax rate from 6 percent to 4 percent and close billions of dollars in tax exemptions on products and services. Voters would have to approve the plan in the form of a constitutional amendment in November.

    Lobbyist Pat Roberts of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, which produced the ads for a business coalition, defended the income tax analogy. Small businesses that can't pass a new tax onto customers must absorb it, Roberts said, and that amounts to a tax on personal income.

    The spots, in English and Spanish, are calculated to anger taxpayers.

    One ad likens McKay's plan to the immensely unpopular 1987 services tax that was dropped. Another tells viewers that seeing eye dogs and school books could be taxed, though decisions on such details are years away.

    Another ad says Floridians end up as "losers" under McKay's plan while bar owners, wealthy investors and out-of-state tourists end up as "winners." McKay's proposal, which has not yet been voted on by any legislative committee, calls for permanent elimination of taxes on bar drinks and stocks and bonds. Tourists currently pay an estimated 12 percent of all sales taxes in the state.

    "I'm not really worried about them," McKay said of the ads. He said he would consider preserving the advertising exemption if media groups could convince him that eliminating it would hurt the state's economy.

    Roberts said several senators, "carrying out the orders of the president," told him the advertising tax break would be preserved if the ads did not run.

    An angry McKay fired back at Roberts in personal terms, accusing broadcasters of going ahead with anti-tax ads because Roberts stands to make a handsome profit from producing them.

    "Pat Roberts has $600,000 that he's getting for himself. You ought to call bull---- on that," McKay told a reporter. "That's plain, simple, straightforward."

    McKay said the opposition campaign is not meant to defeat his tax proposal but to "gin up memberships, gin up organizations, put money in people's pockets."

    "It's not money in my pocket," Roberts said. Broadcasters will provide free air time, but Roberts said producing the spots could cost upwards of $600,000.

    Coalition organizer J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich declined to discuss his group's budget but said a political action committee will file financial reports as the law requires.

    "Personalizing it and name-calling doesn't add much to the store of public information," said Stipanovich, who opposes the plan on behalf of a state association of certified public accountants.

    Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, said that with Senate passage of McKay's plan assured, the timing of the ad campaign proves the business lobby strategy is to "blow up" McKay's proposal before it can reach the House floor, where it would need support of 72 of 120 members, or three-fifths.

    Corporate media opposition was crucial in the collapse of a services tax in 1987, the last time the Legislature made a serious move at tax reform. Some newspaper groups hired lobbyists to fight the tax, even as they hailed it on their editorial pages.

    Some of the state's biggest papers have not taken an editorial position. McKay's hometown paper, the Bradenton Herald, owned by Knight Ridder, is opposed.

    -- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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