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    House slams tax reform

    Sponsor John McKay, the Senate president, is unfazed, insisting that his plan is not dead. ''We're going to have tax reform this session.''

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 21, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House on Wednesday sent a resounding message to those who want to overhaul the state's tax system: forget it.

    The vote was 99-0 to kill Senate President John McKay's plan to ask voters to cut the state sales tax and eliminate dozens of exemptions.

    Not a single House member spoke in favor of the proposal, though 19 Democrats walked out to protest Speaker Tom Feeney's extraordinary maneuver to defeat the plan.

    "We have rejected an idea," Feeney declared after the vote as lawmakers traded hugs and high-fives.

    Feeney saw the vote as a way to end the tax debate, which has all but frozen the Legislature in place midway through its 60-day session.

    The question before the House was whether it should introduce a House equivalent of the McKay tax proposal because McKay has refused to send his bill to the House.

    But McKay was unfazed, insisting that his plan is not dead.

    "They'll do whatever they want and we'll do what's right," McKay said. "We're going to have tax reform this session."

    McKay appears to be prepared to hold up other important legislation, including redistricting and the state budget, to force the House to embrace his tax plan.

    But the House was in no mood to concede anything. For three hours, economists and House members took turns attacking all sides of McKay's plan, from its effect on small businesses to the wisdom of letting voters put a lower sales tax rate in the Constitution.

    McKay will leave office when his term ends in November and his designated successor, Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, the majority leader, will encounter behind-the-scenes pressure to intercede and find some common ground with the House.

    Tensions are running so high that King said he refused Feeney's request to have a private talk at the House speaker's rostrum Wednesday. King said he did not want to be seen in a whispered conversation with Feeney because it would trigger speculation he was cutting a deal.

    "I am too much of a loyalist," King said. "I would not want my president-elect or majority leader to be jerking the rug out from under me at this point, either. ... I, for one, have no intention of rocking that boat."

    Nineteen Democrats, including 10 members of the black caucus and House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, boycotted the session. They walked out to protest what they said was a one-sided vote, no amendments allowed, scripted by Feeney.

    McKay now finds himself up against Gov. Jeb Bush, powerful forces in the state's lobbying establishment, the Florida Association of Broadcasters and every member of the House who was there to vote.

    House Democrats, outnumbered 77-43, had no hope of stopping the Feeney juggernaut. Many of them dislike McKay's plan. But the walkout only made things easier for the speaker, who convened the House as an unusual "select committee of the whole" partly to let all members register a clear "no" vote on a highly controversial issue with election-year consequences.

    The result was a show of House solidarity even stronger in its opposition to McKay's plan than the Senate's own 31-9 vote in favor.

    "When it comes to the devastating power of government to tax," said Rep. Marco Rubio, R- Coral Gables, "that is not negotiable. ... Not us. Not here. Not now."

    Democrats faulted what they said was a heavy-handed maneuver by Feeney to block amendments by offering what is known as a "closed bill."

    "This was a sham, a kangaroo court," said Rep. Nan Rich, D-Weston, one of the boycotters. "The outcome was totally predetermined."

    As they strode out of the chamber, Rep. Jerry Margarden, R-Pensacola, the House majority leader, followed the protesters, accusing them of "grandstanding" and "shirking" their responsibilities to represent their constituents.

    Reps. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, left the chamber when the tax talk began. Reps. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, and Sara Romeo, D-Lutz, stayed in their seats, and a fifth Tampa Bay area Democrat, Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, was absent due to a family medical emergency.

    Black lawmakers later said they left because Feeney's procedural maneuvers squelched a full debate.

    Black lawmakers represent some of the poorest people in the state and would have liked the tax plan to be heard in committees on which they serve, said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami. Feeney has said the House has devoted much more time to a public discussion of tax reform than the Senate, with hearings in six cities. Feeney has argued that the Senate has cut short full debate by rushing through a 185-page bill that implements the services tax in two years.

    McKay has called the House hearings a "sham" because opponents mobilized forces at every stop to rail against what they said was a tax increase.

    In two hours of debate, only one Democrat, Rep. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, made a veiled reference to the forces lined up to defeat McKay's proposal. Many of them are important contributors to candidates and political parties such as Associated Industries, Florida Association of Realtors and Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

    Many seats in the rear of the chamber were empty as three economists selected by Feeney dissected McKay's plan.

    David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute of Public Policy Research at Boston's Suffolk University, said McKay's tax plan would eliminate 35,000 jobs and cost $1.3-million in annual payrolls.

    McKay's economist said the Senate plan would save a typical Florida family $227 a year in lower taxes, with the tax shift moving to businesses instead.

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

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