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    Public hearings report bashes Senate tax plan

    The McKay initiative suffers another blow as Floridians who spoke at hearings overwhelmingly opposed the plan.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Tallahassee Deputy Bureau Chief
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 15, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Rep. Johnnie Byrd didn't have to say a word. The contented faces of the lobbyists said it all.

    The Senate sales tax proposal took another hit Thursday when Byrd, R-Plant City, issued findings of his Select Committee on Florida's Economic Future that held hearings in six cities.

    "The message is clear. Leave the money in the pockets of hard-working Floridians," Byrd said.

    Byrd's wife is a middle school teacher and they have four children in the public schools. But despite grim reports of hiring freezes, layoffs of aides, and the end of summer school in many districts, Byrd says more money is not the answer.

    Senate President John McKay's plan to ask voters to lower the sales tax rate from 6 percent to 4.5 percent and tax nearly 100 now-exempt services is a recipe for bigger government, Byrd said, and the new tax would cripple small businesses.

    "It's a good day for democracy. The system still works," said a beaming Pat Roberts, a lobbyist busy fighting McKay's plan. As president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, Roberts produced a wave of TV ads opposing McKay's proposal, even though advertising would remain tax-exempt. TV stations aired them for free.

    The Byrd committee found that 90 percent of the people who spoke at the public hearings opposed McKay's plan. "Many who supported the Senate proposal were connected to government either through government or as a recipient of government services," the report stated.

    McKay has called the hearings a "sham."

    Against overwhelming odds, including the strong opposition of Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker Tom Feeney, McKay soldiers on, publicly undeterred.

    The term-limited Bradenton Republican is enlisting support from Democrats in the state's congressional delegation, including Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami, a former state senator. The new shape of Meek's U.S. House district will be decided partly by McKay's Senate.

    A spokesman said Meek was not familiar with details of McKay's plan. The Senate sent her a packet of information by overnight mail.

    "I think he's looking to build public support," spokesman Tola Thompson said.

    The widening breach over taxes between McKay on one side and Feeney and Bush on the other has changed the tone of the 2002 session. The regular session's halfway point is next week, but neither chamber's appropriations committee has voted on a budget. Both leaders have staked out their positions.

    "I think they're both digging in, and I think we're going to be here a very, very, very long time," said Ron Book, one of the Capitol's most experienced lobbyists.

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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