Bush says enough taxes are enough
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush lowered the boom on the Senate's controversial tax plan Thursday, calling it "flawed" and saying Florida's taxes are adequate to meet the state's needs.
Speaking to the Florida Chamber of Commerce board of governors, Bush rejected every argument made by the Senate, which favors -- subject to voter approval -- lowering the sales tax to 4.5 percent and taxing more than 90 goods and services for the first time.
"The role of government is not to consume more of your income," Bush said. "The role of government is to create a climate where more people have more money in their own pocket to be able to create their own dreams."
As Bush spoke, Senate committees controlled by Republicans were meeting to begin figuring out which programs to cut to balance a recession-racked budget.
"Why doesn't he come here and face us and have a discussion?" asked Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole. As head of a budget committee on education, Sullivan wants to increase local property taxes to help financially strapped school districts end teacher hiring freezes and allow many teacher aides to keep their part-time jobs.
"He hides behind the fact that he's the governor and thinks it's a bad idea," Sullivan said. "He kind of picked a fight."
The level of hostility from Bush's fellow Republicans is a sign of more serious trouble to come. Some senators feel Bush has not shown them the respect they deserve, and they resent it.
Bush said his stand on the tax plan has nothing to do with his re-election campaign. But his talk, and a long letter on the topic, reflect his firm decision to run on the theme that Florida is doing well and the state has enough money.
"Our economy is the envy of the rest of the country," Bush said.
Even the Chamber Foundation's own New Cornerstone reports have cited a series of factors hindering Florida's progress in comparison with other states: from low salaries for workers to high dropout rates. The chamber also concluded that Florida has not suffered as much from the recession as many other states because it has so few manufacturing jobs.
"Florida's concentration of lower-paying service, retail and tourism industries, which account for more than 60 percent of employment, remains a long-term development concern," reported the chamber.
The chamber speech, to a friendly pro-business crowd, was vintage Bush. He spoke in a tone of firm conviction without notes for 20 minutes in his role as governor and Florida's chief promoter.
But in the Capitol, Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, unveiled a "wish list" of $2-billion in human service programs for next year. He said some likely will have to be cut because of a lack of money. Eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures for poor adults are in jeopardy, he said.
"We don't have enough dollars to do the things we should be doing," Silver said.
Silver said Bush has made matters worse by not allowing for an $85-million increase in Medicaid expenses related to higher caseloads and prescription drug costs.
Most Senate Republicans, including Sullivan and Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, Lisa Carlton of Sarasota, Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie and Jim King of Jacksonville, state their case for a new tax system by citing Florida's mediocre rankings on education spending, high school graduation rates, skill levels for workers and other categories.
"I disagree," Bush said.
Bush also sent McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney, a fellow critic of McKay's proposal, a seven-page letter disputing point by point the premises behind McKay's proposal. Bush rejected McKay's central premise that Florida is facing a $4-billion budget hole within the next few years because of federal repeal of the estate tax and the shift of retail sales to the Internet.
"This tax reform is a government spending plan," Bush wrote.
Bush's only concession to McKay: there are far too many tax exemptions that serve narrow special interests.
Citing job expansion at the Kennedy Space Center and at a GE factory in Pensacola, he said the state's work force is better than it's getting credit for. He criticized as "laughable" news reports that Florida's No. 1 ranking in creating new jobs included lots of low-paying service jobs at call centers.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire