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    Senators criticize TV stations for tax ads

    Most stations remain steadfast, denying free air time to those who support a tax reform plan.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET and ERIC DEGGANS
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 29, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Senators who want to overhaul Florida's tax system went on the offensive Monday, demanding that TV stations yank "misleading" ads and seeking free air time to respond.

    But the broadcasters stood their ground. Managers of two Tampa stations rejected both requests, calling the tax proposal bad policy for the state.

    The latest clash comes as senators prepare this week to pass a bill that would let voters decide next fall whether to extend the sales tax to dozens of services that are now tax-free, while also cutting the general sales tax rate from 6 to 4.5 percent. Tourists would continue paying 6 percent on hotel bills and rental cars.

    Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, is the architect of a plan he says is needed to insulate Florida from recessions or tourism slumps. One such slump happened right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and contributed to the need for more than $1-billion in budget cuts.

    Eric Land, general manager of WFLA-Ch. 8, Tampa's NBC affiliate, said the tax proposal reminded him of the short-lived 1987 tax on services, including TV ads.

    "We'll take every measure in our arsenal to make certain that a similar tax never sees the light of day," Land said.

    Sam Stallworth, general manager of WFTS-Ch. 28, an ABC affiliate, said the possibility of a sales tax on advertising is bad for the TV industry. If his industry's ads were untrue, Stallworth said, "I would feel somewhat duped. But I don't want to be taxed on advertising. We've seen that movie before, and it cost us a lot of money."

    The Senate has agreed to preserve a longstanding sales tax exemption for all advertising on TV and radio and in newspapers. But that has not stopped the Florida Association of Broadcasters from launching a high-profile "Ax the Tax" campaign, with hard-hitting ads that say Floridians would be "losers" under McKay's proposal.

    Both WFLA and WFTS are airing ads for free that label McKay's plan a "2002 service tax" and claim that some services would be taxed that the Senate tax bill keeps tax-free. Both TV managers said they would not offer McKay's side free time.

    A third general manager, Sam Rosenwasser of WTSP-Ch. 10, the CBS affiliate, said he did not know whether the ads in question contained inaccuracies or whether the other side would get free time.

    The TV ads don't appear to have triggered a barrage of negative phone calls, but they have succeeded in infuriating many senators.

    Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, faced a half-dozen TV cameras at a news conference and lectured the stations on their public interest responsibilities.

    "We all need to remember that the airwaves are owned by the people, not by the people who have the licenses, and that those licenses are given for a period of time, based on their stewardship of the airwaves," Latvala said.

    Latvala is treasurer of a political action committee that is raising money for ads that counteract the TV industry's claims. It is called Floridians Against Inequities in Rates, or FAIR.

    Senate rules prohibit lawmakers from raising campaign money during the annual 60-day session. Latvala said that restriction does not apply because FAIR deals with an issue, not a candidate.

    Senators were joined by supporters including the Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties, Florida Hospital Association, Florida School Boards Association, Florida Education Association and AARP.

    "We can see that the current tax system will not keep up with Florida's growing needs," said Ed Paschal of AARP. "Our bottom line is to let the people decide."

    McKay has hired Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist, who wrote station managers a stern two-page letter pointing out "false and misleading" claims and requesting free time to respond.

    But the law is not on the Senate's side.

    Fifteen years ago, the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which required TV stations to present all sides of controversial issues. In October 2000, a federal appeals court in Washington threw out rules that required stations to make free air time available to answer editorials or personal attacks.

    Broadcasters give the impression they are winning the this fight handily.

    In a Jan. 23 letter to Florida TV station executives, a copy of which was obtained by the St. Petersburg Times, Ax the Tax's chief fund-raiser, Murray Green, wrote: "The battle is not yet won! While it does appear that the ad tax will not become a reality this year, we are still faced with the fact that many of our advertisers will be seriously affected by the service tax being sought."

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