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'The Kid' stakes no new tax stance to succeed mentor

By C.T. BOWEN
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002

John Legg's political debut came in December 1996.

The coming out party was a routine reorganizational meeting of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee that attracted some notoriety because of a promised fight for the GOP chairmanship. The predictions of discord prompted one party official to ask for sheriff's protection at the Saturday morning gathering in the event of fisticuffs.

Extreme? Sure, but the Pasco GOP loves a good fight with itself and the dissatisfaction was plentiful among the rank and file.

Unfortunately for us journalists who had staked out the session, the brouhaha never materialized. Then-chairman, Carole Lott, won re-election in a subdued contest.

But, during the same meeting state Rep. Mike Fasano nominated an unknown 21-year-old to be the party's vice chairman -- John Legg. Everybody referred to him as the kid. He spoke about the social work he had done with the Pasco Housing Authority.

It turned into a stump speech. He talked. And talked. And talked.

His presentation ended when the sergeant-at- arms came on stage and removed the microphone. Everyone chuckled. He didn't win. But the party rewarded him with the job of assistant secretary.

It wasn't the first time Legg had heard the gong. Three years earlier, as a member of a church youth group, he opposed the opening of an adult theater in New Port Richey. The teenager ran over his time allotment then, too, and the mayor politely gaveled him to sit down at a City Council meeting.

The theater eventually gained city approval to operate. The mayor, incidentally, was Debra Prewitt, the state representative who Legg helped unseat when he ran Heather Fiorentino's 1998 campaign.

"Sometimes I get nervous talking in front of a group of people and just go on and on," Legg confessed. Surely, the students in his government and history classes at Dayspring Academy will get a howl out of that.

Teacher is just one line on Legg's resume. It stretches from social work to campaign operative to legislative assistant. Now, add candidate for state House of Representatives. All by age 26.

Fasano again is behind the candidacy. Legg wants to succeed him in the District 45 seat that now encompasses portions of west Pasco, Land O'Lakes and Dade City. How the district will look after the Legislature redraws the lines this year is not known.

And like any true Fasanoite -- our own version of Reaganite -- the talk turns to taxes. As in, forget about it. It's the first issue listed on Legg's campaign flier and the only topic to get the uppercase treatment: NO NEW TAXES. How many times have we seen this? Stake out the far right and appeal to the conservative voters in a potential Republican primary.

That certainly makes state Sen. John McKay's current call for tax reform a topic for fodder. The idea is to cut the state sales tax rate from 6 to 4.5 percent, but eliminate exemptions. It is to be revenue neutral initially, but eventually proceeds to the state will increase. It is an attempt to modernize an antiquated system of government finance that stumbles every time the tourism industry slows.

McKay already is backing away from his initial proposal. The bill introduced this week includes exemptions from some of the staunch opponents.

One of Legg's reasons for opposing tax reform is the fear local governments would then add on their own sales tax increase. Counties, he said, actually could market a sales tax increase as reduction considering the cut in the state rate.

"You're literally bringing in a new wave of taxes. I'm not saying counties can't use that money . . . but they must live within their means," said Legg.

Well, first things first. Legg's comments came a week after the Pasco County Commission agreed to forgo seeking a sales tax increase this year. It's out the door locally, at least for two years. So certainly much of this is speculative to his district.

It should be noted 34 counties in Florida imposed a higher sales tax to pay for local infrastructure. They did so because of state legislation that created what is known as the local-option. Translation: Tallahassee let the locals take the political heat for raising taxes. Voters in those counties approved the increases via referendum, meaning democracy won out over demagoguery. And, under McKay's proposal, sales tax revenues to local governments must remain the same. Removing exemptions is not intended to be a local windfall. Excess proceeds must be applied to lower property taxes or some other form of tax relief.

So much for a whole new wave of taxes.

When we quizzed Legg on that aspect Thursday afternoon, the candidate acknowledged he needed to become more familiar with McKay's proposal. "I have no comment on county issues," he said.

The teacher is learning.

For once, he didn't need a gong.

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