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Some would tax your groceries if they could

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- The lobbyists knew before Senate President John McKay that Jeb Bush was preparing to dump on his tax reform. Some of them were even boasting about it on the street Tuesday.

"It's more fun to be on defense," said one, "especially when you know you're going to win."

"The governor is going to come out against it Thursday," said another.

Here's another secret: The special interests have a tax plan of their own.

They want to tax your groceries. Then your rent. Maybe even your doctor bills and prescription drugs,too.

Count on it. They have the lobbyists. You haven't any.

Most call themselves conservatives, but the truth is that they don't care what gets taxed so long as it isn't any of them.

As humorist Dave Barry would not say, I am making some of this up.

I have absolutely no evidence of a plot to tax groceries, or rent, or medical bills and prescriptions.

But I am being no more inventive or irresponsible than some of those "Ax the Tax" ads, sponsored as a public disservice by the Florida Association of Broadcasters, which imply that McKay would tax day care, home mortgages and even seeing eye dogs.

The truth is that those, and a lot else -- including advertising -- would remain exempt under the McKay legislation as the Senate approved it. What's more, rental cars and hotel rooms would remain taxed at the present rate, 6 percent. So much for letting tourists off the hook.

Their excuse, however, is the familiar rationalization, what if?, that attends most sleazy political propaganda. Their tiny grain of truth is that the Legislature could tax day care and home mortgages. Never mind that it could do so now.

Conversely, it seems only fair to speculate about what the Legislature could do someday if McKay's plan doesn't go through.

Yes, the Legislature could tax groceries, health services, prescription drugs and residential rent, whenever it chooses.

There's more than a mere grain of truth in that. McKay's constitutional amendment would forever exempt groceries, health services, prescription drugs and residential rent. But if that protection does not go into the Constitution, they could add $2-billion to Florida's grocery bills almost before you knew they were doing it.

So while it might not be accurate to say that McKay's opponents want to tax your groceries, it is accurate to say that they want the Legislature to remain free to do it.

". . The sales tax exemptions that Senator McKay wants to protect," remarked an Associated Industries legislative memo last month, "are the very ones that, if repealed, would generate the steady tax dollars so desired in good times and bad."

Eighteen states tax groceries. That Florida doesn't is about the only thing that keeps us from having the nation's most regressive tax structure. We're merely fifth worst, according to the 1996 ranking by Citizens for Tax Justice, but we're a sure shot for fourth worst now that Georgia has repealed its grocery tax.

The lobbies ganged up in the same way to get the sales tax passed 53 years ago.

Ed Ball, the tycoon of his late brother-in-law Edward I duPont's estate, had been lobbying for years to tax sales so that wealth would be spared.

He finally succeeded in 1949 after the Legislature had killed 16 other new or increased taxes that Gov. Fuller Warren had proposed to balance the budget.

Warren saw it coming and warned legislators of a "a threatened coalition among all the lobbyists . . . to beat down every revenue bill . . . "

Five months later, he found himself signing into law the sales tax that he had promised from the stump to veto. His excuse was that it was a "limited" sales tax. Even then, some of the same special interests that are now ganging up on McKay were urging the Legislature to tax groceries, too.

The residual fear of that contributed to ending the political career of the late John E. Mathews Jr., one of Florida's best legislators. Running for governor in 1970, Mathews refused to promise that he would never tax groceries. Reubin Askew's campaign seized on that little grain of truth in a statement labeling Mathews "Food Tax Jack."

Mathews had no plan to tax groceries. I remember asking him why he didn't just come out and take the pledge.

"It's not in my nature," he said.

Mathews ran third. Askew, who was campaigning for a corporate profits tax, won the Democratic runoff and the general election. He passed the corporate tax -- Florida's last successful tax reform -- and used some of that revenue to lift the sales tax from residential rent and household utilities.

Askew's reform, like McKay's, entailed a constitutional amendment. In retrospect, it would have been a fine opportunity to take groceries off the tax table forever.

Now there is another chance. Maybe the last. But the same old gang holds almost all the cards, and they are winning.

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