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    GOP leaders doff gloves in debate of tax proposal

    An already contentious debate turns personal for the House speaker and the Senate president.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 13, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- The battle over taxes turned ugly Tuesday as an uncompromising House speaker vowed to oppose the Senate's plan and the Senate president questioned the speaker's integrity.

    House Speaker Tom Feeney said the plan would amount to "the largest tax increase in the history of Florida" and said he would push for a vote by the House within two weeks.

    Senate President John McKay responded by accusing Feeney of protecting tax exemptions for special interests that support the speaker's congressional campaign.

    "Somebody ought to go check some campaign contributions of folks running for higher office down there and see how they match to the special interests with tax breaks," a combative McKay told reporters.

    It was an astonishing moment: the presiding officer of one legislative chamber bluntly questioning the integrity of his colleague in the other chamber. And from the same political party, no less.

    Feeney, a history buff given to quoting the Founding Fathers, tried to seize the high ground: He paraphrased former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said she was glad when attacks turned personal because that meant there was no substance left in the argument.

    Many early donors to Feeney's campaign are Washington-based political action committees for assorted special interests. They include dentists, optometrists, road builders, BellSouth, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, CSX Corp., Darden Restaurants, Florida Power & Light, Humana and the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

    At the same time, a newly formed group supporting McKay's tax stand is airing a 30-second spot that emphasizes McKay's proposal to cut the sales tax from 6 percent to 4.5 percent, subject to voter approval. The ad makes no mention of the most controversial part of McKay's plan: a 4.5 percent tax on nearly 100 goods and services.

    "Guess who's against it? Lawyers, accountants, the special interests and their lobbyists. You see, they all have their tax loopholes and sweetheart deals," the announcer says.

    Eric Land, general manager of WFLA-Ch. 8, said the group bought a week's worth of ads that began airing Monday and ends Friday. Land declined to say how much time the group bought, but because WFLA is an NBC affiliate broadcasting the Winter Olympics, some ad slots were probably at premium prices.

    The ads are sponsored by Citizens for a Tax Rollback Inc. The Division of Elections said no political action committee is registered under that name. Documents filed with WFLA list Lee Killinger, general counsel for the Florida Association of Counties, as a contact.

    Lobbyist Lester Abberger, another organizer, said Citizens for a Tax Rollback was set up as an "issue advocacy" group, so it is not required to report contributions and expenses as a political action committee.

    Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, defended the group as a vehicle to influence public policy. Such groups abuse the law, he said, only when they use issue advocacy as a subterfuge to elect or defeat candidates.

    Opponents had a different view.

    "It raises questions from an ethical perspective," said Cory Tilley, spokesman for the Coalition to Protect Florida's Economy, the PAC fighting McKay. "No one will ever know who's paying for these ads."

    It's only the fourth week of the regular session, but Feeney and McKay find themselves locked in a bitter conflict that threatens to derail the budget, redistricting and other important issues. Feeney is running for Congress -- in a district not yet drawn -- and McKay is quitting politics in November.

    McKay's forces have hinted at using Feeney's political ambitions to win concession on the tax plan, but Feeney's forces say the speaker would give up on Congress before he supported a policy he opposes.

    In vowing to vote against McKay's plan, Feeney echoed the same arguments voiced by Gov. Jeb Bush last week. Feeney said taxes are too high now, the state's job growth leads the United States, and forcing hundreds of thousands of small businesses to collect a tax for the first time would be a severe hardship.

    Feeney offered McKay only a token olive branch: He agreed on "a few" sales tax exemptions that are "silly and indefensible."

    - Times staff writers Alisa Ulferts and Eric Deggans and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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