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    A Times Editorial

    Courage in tax reform

    Florida needs tax reform and the only one who is showing political courage by offering a viable solution is Senate President John McKay.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 20, 2002

    If not this, what? If not now, when? To every opponent of Senate President John McKay's tax plan, as well as to every reputed civic leader or legislator cowering on the sidelines, falls the moral duty of answering these questions. Florida's need for tax reform is no longer debatable; two crippling recessions a decade apart have resolved it. The time is here for people who claim to favor better schools and universities to put up or shut up. The time is now for people who prosper in Florida to help their state escape the quagmire of mediocrity where every national comparison pitilessly places it.

    However, it is Florida's most selfish, most shortsighted people who are making by far the louder noise. Under the relentless assault of a coalition of special interests led by the Florida Association of Broadcasters, McKay has already been forced to compromise; too soon, perhaps too much, and with nothing in good faith from the other side. Advertising will keep its tax exemptions; so will agribusiness. The 6 percent sales tax will be reduced not to 4 percent, as McKay proposed, but to 4.5. Yet the antireform hate campaign thunders on.

    Florida has seen nothing more cynical than some of the grounds on which the broadcasters chose to assail McKay's constitutional amendment. For example, they call it a windfall for the rich because McKay proposed to repeal what's left of the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds. Where was the voice of the broadcasters when the governor and Legislature were scaling down the tax in 1999 and again in 2000?

    The rich already have had their tax cut; why shouldn't working people have one for a change? Make no mistake: to reduce the sales tax on merchandise and to extend the sales tax to services is to save money for the majority of Floridians who don't hire accountants, investment advisers and tax planners.

    The lesson of the last week is that no end of concessions would satisfy the coalition of special interests that evidently has sworn in blood to strangle any tax reform that ever threatens any of them. Not since Gov. Reubin Askew won the corporate profits tax in 1971 has the choice for legislators been more clear or consequential. Will they vote for the selfish few, their historical true constituency? Or will they, this once, put the future of Florida first?

    The antireform coalition is trying to kill the reform on McKay's own turf, the Senate, and has apparently succeeded in terrorizing some senators on whose support McKay was counting. So it will be a critical moment for the Senate as well as the state when the Finance and Taxation Committee votes this week on Senate Joint Resolution 938, the constitutional amendment, and perhaps upon the implementing legislation that will spell out the exemptions to be continued. Only five of its nine members, a bare majority, are co-sponsors of SJR 938. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, is one of them but Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, is conspicuously not among them. McKay and Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, have addressed all the concerns she expressed at the committee's first hearing. Reform-minded citizens who remember Brown-Waite's courageous defiance of the tobacco and "tort reform" lobbies are depending on her to come through yet again.

    Of the assorted arguments against McKay's plan, the most dishonest is that the Constitution is no place to make tax policy. That must be some other state's constitution they're talking about. Ours is full of tax policy, including a 10-mill ceiling on local taxes, a prohibition on a personal income tax and a requirement that the corporate profits tax can't be raised above 5 percent without a supermajority vote of the Legislature. McKay's amendment would add a promise that the sales tax couldn't be raised above 4.5 percent without a similar supermajority -- and, for the first time, would guarantee to Floridians that their groceries, medical care and residential rent would never be taxed. Are the opponents of his amendment suggesting that the Legislature should be able to tax groceries and prescriptions? That consumers shouldn't have as much protection as corporations do?

    The approach of using a constitutional amendment, which a governor neither signs nor vetoes, spares Jeb Bush of any official responsibility but does not relieve him of a moral burden in the matter. Even as several of his former (and future) campaign aides turn up among the antireform activists, the governor is among those trying to stand on the sidelines. Bush having refused an interview on the subject, the Times e-mailed a list of questions concerning McKay's proposal. Among them: Does the governor believe that Florida can meet its needs into the foreseeable future without some sort of tax reform? If so, does he believe revenue from existing sources will suffice? Are there additional budget items that, in his opinion, could be cut?

    "Our position," his office replied, "has consistently been that this is a big idea worthy of debate. No more, no less."

    A phrase from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar comes to mind. We commend it to legislators as well:

    "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

    Floridians who support McKay's objectives need to make their voices heard by calling or writing their own legislators and the House speaker's office. A mailing address sufficient for all legislators is The Capitol, Tallahassee, FL, 32399. Time is short.

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