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Tax accord might keep courts out of later fray

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- Rarely has a vote in our Legislature been so important, dramatic, passionately debated -- and quite possibly so unrelated to the ultimate outcome.

Even as the Florida Senate was voting 31-9 Thursday for a fundamental change in the way that Floridians are taxed, the lobbyists for some of the major businesses that would be affected were relaxed and cheerful.

They watched the debate on the large screens on the Capitol's fourth floor, outside the Senate chamber. Officially, they were suffering a crushing defeat. But it felt more like watching a spring training baseball game.

The fact is, the Senate voted yes mainly because of the relentless efforts of its president, John McKay. But the House doesn't like it, the governor doesn't like it, the lobbyists don't like it and a big chunk of the voters don't like it either.

So it's all uphill from here. Less than two hours after the Senate's vote, the Florida Association of Broadcasters unveiled a new array of anti-tax commercials, now redirected at the House. They are good and sharp and most effective of all, sometimes funny.

Here is the gist of what the Senate did: The state sales tax, which now is 6 percent, would be cut to 4.5 percent. On the other hand, a list of things that are not taxed now would become taxed. The idea is that Florida's tax base would be broader, more stable, more able to meet the state's needs.

Many of the Senate speeches were fitting for the important occasion. Republican and Democrat alike, senators stood to say they were voting for a better Florida. The question was, as framed by Ron Silver, D-Miami: "Do we care about each other?"

But the precise list of new taxes keeps changing. It changed again Thursday, when at the last minute barbers and beauticians and railroad transportation got taken out. The original, grand principle -- get rid of tax breaks -- is increasingly being eroded by whichever new deal has to be cut.

The general impression is of icebergs drifting toward collision. The only way the House will possibly pass the Senate's plan is if the Senate can apply extraordinary pressure in some other area.

It becomes a question of brute force.

Here is the biggest stick that the Senate holds. This is the year that Florida must draw its new districts for Congress and the Legislature. The speaker of the House, Tom Feeney, would be a candidate for Congress, if he got a new district in the Orlando area.

What? Is the matter of Florida's tax policy really tied to the personal political career of a single legislator? You bet.

But even here, the Senate's power is limited. The Senate can only hold the House hostage so long. If no map is drawn by late spring, then do you know who steps in and draws it?

The courts, that's who. Federal judges for congressional districts, and the Florida Supreme Court for legislative districts.

That would be the same Florida Supreme Court that ruled in favor of Al Gore last year. The same Supreme Court, mostly appointed by Democrats, that the Republican-led lawmakers love to hate. Their worst nightmare is, say, Justice Barbara Pariente with a pencil in her hand, redrawing their districts.

When it comes to Congress, control of the U.S. House itself is at stake. The swing of a few districts could make the difference. There is no chance, zero, that the Republican National Committee, the White House, and the party's financiers will let control of the U.S. government be turned over to unelected judges because of a state-level tax issue.

So the Senate's power to trade districts for tax reform is limited. It is a banana on the shelf, already starting to turn brown.

I hope I am wrong. But if the forces arrayed against McKay prove too awesome, here is Plan B. Rather than take total defeat, agree to a two- or three-year review of every existing tax break. Pick the ones that are least justified, separate them from the herd, and pick them off one at a time. In that way, defeat would not be the beginning of the end of tax reform, only the end of the beginning.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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