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    A Times Editorial

    Florida's ugly secrets

    The special interests opposing John McKay's tax reform plan want to avoid any open and honest debate that would expose the inadequacies of the state's tax structure.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 27, 2002

    Florida suffers not half so much from a budget shortage as from a moral bankruptcy among its business leadership. The greater crisis was exposed when the Florida Chamber of Commerce opposed Senate President John McKay's tax plan despite its substantial similarity to reforms the chamber itself eloquently advocated, for the same reasons, 11 years ago. This is the same chamber that has been documenting the inadequacies of Florida's public schools and universities.

    To the chamber's wimpish proposal for yet another study commission, McKay could fairly have addressed stronger words than "politically expedient" and the "height of hypocrisy." He had hoped that even if no other business organization took his side, at least that one would. The disappointment cut deep.

    Even so, the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee approved the two measures, a constitutional amendment and the implementing legislation, by 9-0 votes. This means they could be on the Senate floor by Thursday. Neither measure could be recognized by the lies that the opponents continue to broadcast despite significant concessions by McKay and committee Chairman Ken Pruitt.

    Given the venom of the opposition and the dearth of support, the committee's vote was a noteworthy tribute not just to the Senate's leadership, but to a level of courage not often seen in Tallahassee. Anticipating the committee outcome, and the floor vote to follow, the smear coalition led by the Florida Association of Broadcasters announced that its propaganda will begin targeting senators by name.

    This raises some interesting questions: Why are the special interests so furiously bent on killing McKay's program in the Senate when it doesn't have even one sponsor in a House of Representatives that is heavily stacked against it? Why don't the lobbies simply concede the Senate and spend their time and money locking down the House?

    One possibility, of course, is that they fear McKay might actually force the House to pass it by blocking the redistricting bills in which nearly every legislator has a keen personal interest.

    We think something deeper is involved. The special interests, the historic true constituency of Florida's Legislature, cannot abide any debate that honestly exposes the inadequacies of Florida's tax structure. They dare not permit any searching look into how a better revenue base might make Florida's schools and social services objects of pride rather than embarrassment. To talk of tax reform is to call into question the false doctrines that Florida is doing fine and needs only to spend even less.

    "They're simply afraid of any discussion that raises the public consciousness and challenges all the myths," says Larry Fuchs, the retired director of Florida's Department of Revenue. It was his parting warning of an impending fiscal disaster that took less than two years to prove true. Speaking to the Senate committee Friday, Fuchs recalled how the state chamber's warnings had predated his own.

    Nobody spoke Friday for the chamber.

    What it said in 1991 is as true now as it was then.

    "The antique tax system that once served us well needs to be stored away with other fond memories. . . . We believe that tax reform today is necessary to protect our paradise today and tomorrow. . . . Only through change today, can we secure paradise for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, and all those generations of Floridians to come after us."

    On that occasion, the chamber was promoting what it called a comprehensive business tax. It differed in details, but not in purpose, from what McKay proposes. If the chamber believes his constitutional amendment to be the wrong approach, so do others. Then let them volunteer a better one -- and let them do it now, with eight weeks still remaining in the 2002 session. To beg instead for another year of study is, to put it kindly, a profile in shame.

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