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    Clouds gather over McKay's tax proposal

    On the eve of the session, a business coalition hammers the Senate president's plan to overhaul the sales tax.

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 22, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Rain, overcast skies and mounting opposition to a controversial tax plan greeted lawmakers Monday as they gathered for a final round of fundraising and partying before settling in for today's start of the legislative session.

    On Monday, the Florida Council of 100, a coalition of the state's major business leaders, announced that it will oppose Senate President John McKay's proposal for a constitutional amendment to overhaul the state's sales taxes.

    It is "inherently wrong" to put tax reform in the Constitution, the council argued. Floridians expect legislators to make the tough decisions, not pass them along to voters, it said. Tax decisions, the group added, should come only after a tax commission is appointed to do an indepth study of the situation with public hearings throughout the state.

    "Attempting to force complex changes to the sales tax through the Constitution is just not the way to proceed," wrote Council of 100 chairman Al Hoffman Jr. and vice chairman Chris Sullivan in a letter distributed Monday to Gov. Jeb Bush, House Speaker Tom Feeney and McKay.

    Both Hoffman and Sullivan are Bush campaign supporters. Bush has not taken a position on the tax.

    The council also questioned whether any major change in the state's tax code should be considered in the midst of a recession and in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

    "Those factors cause considerable uncertainty in business and in families -- a new tax plan will only exacerbate the concerns we all face day in and out," the letter added.

    McKay's tax proposal is designed to modernize a 50-year-old sales tax that is filled with exemptions added one by one over the years, but it is likely to get tangled up in redistricting, the state's $50-billion budget and every other important issue on this year's legislative agenda.

    McKay could not be reached for comment on the letter.

    Meanwhile, the Florida Homebuilders Association remained firmly on the fence, refusing to endorse or condemn the plan.

    "There is not enough information available right now for us to take a formal position," said Barbara Revels, president of the Homebuilders.

    Once every 10 years, legislators gather in January instead of March to get an early start on redrawing the lines for legislative and congressional districts, a process that always adds a layer of political intrigue to the normally chaotic season of lawmaking.

    Today's session will begin with the traditional State of the State address by the governor, but because of the attacks, an anthrax scare and the recession, the state is far different from the one Bush described a year ago.

    Bush, who typically goes off script whenever delivering a speech and has been known to cross out entire pages of remarks and replace them with his own words, is expected to stick to one word like glue: education, education and education.

    He offered a sneak preview of his speech last week when he released his budget proposal for next year and stressed how much education funding has increased since he took office three years ago. He proposes a modest increase for next year: per student spending in basic public education would rise by 3 percent before calculating for inflation.

    "The governor has made education the number one priority of this state," said Bush spokeswoman Katie Baur. That will be noted in the speech, but not to the exclusion of other areas, she said.

    "Look for some surprises. He'll be talking about some new initiatives," Baur said.

    In his budget proposal, which lawmakers can adopt or ignore, Bush set aside $400-million to be distributed later among several new education programs he's working on, plus provide a cushion in case the recession deepens.

    Emphasizing the importance of the state's business community, Associated Industries of Florida welcomed lawmakers, their families and staff and hundreds of other state officials and lobbyists Monday to an outdoor party that has become a tradition on the night before each regular session.

    More than 50 of the businesses who lobby legislators contribute $2,000 each to throw the biggest party in a season of parties designed to wine and dine lawmakers. This year, red, white and blue tablecloths, a flag and an ice carving of the Statue of Liberty greeted guests at the posh party outside the Associated Industries headquarters, which is between the Capitol and the Governor's Mansion.

    Bush, in a long-sleeved green shirt, greeted legislators and friends and paused to welcome Bill McBride, a Democratic candidate for governor who was making his first visit to an Associated Industries party. Former Gov. Reubin Askew, legislators and state Supreme Court justices were among the more than 4,000 guests at the party.

    Staged in a courtyard, the party went on as scheduled despite gray skies and the threat of rain.

    "I've been praying since 4:30 a.m.," said AIF president Jon Shebel as he described the thunderstorm that passed through town earlier in the day. "I need to visit a church and make a large donation on the way home."

    The party was also a place for lobbyists to deliver checks to legislators during the final hours they can legally raise campaign money for the 2002 election. House and Senate rules forbid fundraising during the 60-day legislative session.

    And if lobbyists would like to reach beyond Florida's borders, they can attend a fundraiser early today for Maria Strollo, a candidate for the Senate in Georgia who once worked for Florida legislators.

    Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, are among those sponsoring the breakfast fundraiser at the Governor's Club. Donations of $2,000 per person will be accepted.

    Latvala said he agreed to help for "a friend of a friend" and made certain it was staged before today's session actually begins.

    -- Staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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    From the Times state desk