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    Feeney makes House a weapon

    Speaker Tom Feeney will make the House into a "committee of the whole'' to crush a sales tax proposal.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 20, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- As an epic power struggle consumes the Capitol, House Speaker Tom Feeney will rewrite history today by turning the House into a 120-member committee so it can crush the Senate's tax plan.

    Feeney's newest creation, the oddly named "House Select Committee of the Whole," sent clerks rummaging through archives for a precedent, but they couldn't find one, the clerk's office said.

    With the session at the midway point, and not one bill of consequence having passed both chambers, Feeney said talk of tax reform must now end.

    "We have a lot of things that have had us sort of paralyzed for the first month by this discussion," Feeney said. "We have entertained all the proposals on tax reform that we can enjoy this session."

    But Feeney's strategy has the telltale signs of a spectacle devised not merely to defeat, but to humiliate Senate President John McKay. House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel blasted Feeney for his use of "raw power."

    "I've never seen anything like this," Frankel told fellow Democrats at a noon caucus. "We are seeing showmanship at the highest level, and I say, for who? Not for the kids in school."

    Two House committees held emergency meetings Tuesday night on three hours' notice to pass new rules applying to today's debate. Those committees are exempt from advance notice requirements for public meetings that apply to all other House committees.

    "I don't understand why I got a call at 4 to come to a 7 o'clock meeting for a plan that the leadership has been considering since November," said Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, one of three Democrats who voted against the rules changes.

    If a select committee of the whole is new, Feeney's style is not.

    He has played by his own rules before, as in November 2000 when he led the charge to have the Legislature break the presidential election stalemate by naming a slate of George W. Bush electors. In October, Feeney refused to negotiate budget differences with the Senate. The result was chaos, name-calling and the collapse of a special session.

    Feeney is again making creative use of his power, this time with the hope of crushing McKay's dream of making the biggest changes to the tax system since 1949. McKay wants to cut the sales tax to 4.5 percent, subject to voter approval, then recoup $4.2-billion in revenue by taxing nearly 100 services that are untaxed.

    McKay says families are paying too much in taxes so businesses can enjoy tax breaks, and in a meeting with big-city mayors, he told St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker that his plan shifts taxes from consumers to businesses.

    Unless the tax base is broadened, McKay says the state will fall further and further behind in paying for basic services, and the sales tax will have to be increased again. But Feeney, and Gov. Jeb Bush, reject McKay's plan as unnecessary, bad for small businesses and a tax increase in disguise.

    McKay made the first unorthodox move two weeks ago. He refused to send the House his tax bills after overwhelming Senate passage, despite a Senate rule that says bills must be sent over "without delay."

    McKay didn't send the bills because he knew that Feeney would immediately bring them up for a vote and defeat them.

    So Feeney simply whipped up a House equivalent of McKay's proposal. It is a word-for-word copy of the Senate version. The plan is for the House to reject its own copy of McKay's plan, rendering it dead.

    Feeney has other ideas. He's turning the House into a committee so his chosen economists, who reject McKay's economic logic, can testify before the entire House as they would at any committee meeting.

    Feeney designated Rep. Rob Wallace, a Tampa Republican, chairman of the House Fiscal Policy Committee and a longstanding critic of McKay's proposal, to explain details of McKay's plan.

    And by forcing a floor vote of all 120 House members on McKay's controversial proposal, Feeney is allowing fellow conservatives to go on record in opposition.

    Feeney's tactics also put Democrats in a tight spot. They can vote with the Republicans, or vote for McKay's proposal and risk having an opponent in the fall campaign accuse them of supporting higher taxes.

    Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, urged Democrats to walk out in protest today. "I don't think you should let yourself be run over," said Lawson, a former House member.

    Lobbyists who oppose McKay's plan to apply a reduced sales tax to dozens of services praised Feeney.

    One, J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, said Feeney wisely is refusing to let McKay hold his tax package over the House "like a sword of Damocles."

    "The House is saying, "We're not going to play that game, and we're going to signal our position loud and clear,' " Stipanovich said. "The House is going to sweep this issue off the table."

    No it isn't, insisted McKay. Publicly placid as always, he said Feeney's move is "no big deal" because his tax bills are still in the Senate.

    McKay made a blunt appeal for support from House Democrats, but even among some of the Legislature's most liberal members, the response was lukewarm. Many Democrats are still not well-informed about details of McKay's plan, and some are uneasy about going out on a limb to support such a politically dangerous proposition in an election year.

    The most telling sign of McKay's failure to persuade House members to his cause is that no one in the House has come forward and offered to sponsor McKay's tax plan.

    "This idea stinks so bad, he couldn't even get a companion bill," Stipanovich said.

    The House clerk's office said it was not aware of any previous case in which a speaker convened a "Select Committee of the Whole," as Feeney is doing. The last time the House convened as a committee of the whole was May 21, 1973, to act on claims bills involving people injured by government negligence.

    -- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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