Session lacks key to tax deadlock
By STEVE BOUSQUET and LUCY MORGAN
TALLAHASSEE -- As a stalemate over taxes brings the Legislature to a virtual standstill, legislators spent Thursday debating how to break the deadlock and get on with other business.
It won't be easy.
The fifth week of the nine-week session ends today, and the two chambers are miles apart in crafting a new budget -- the one issue the Constitution says they must resolve.
Senators won't vote on a budget for two more weeks, which throws a scheduled March 22 adjournment in jeopardy.
"There's no doubt in my mind we'll be here past March 22. No doubt," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.
If the budget is not adopted by then, the Legislature will be forced to call special sessions until the job is done. The Legislature must adopt a budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1. Temporary budgets could be passed if a final solution is not reached by then, dragging the process through the summer.
With the deadlock over taxes, only two bills have passed both chambers so far.
With puzzling optimism, Senate President John McKay on Thursday continued to promise tax reform, one day after a 99-0 shellacking by the House.
House Speaker Tom Feeney executed a choreographed but effective rejection of McKay's controversial effort to lower the sales tax and cut out dozens of exemptions. That would seem to send the tax ball back to the Senate, but Latvala, one of McKay's key strategists, rejected that notion.
"We're not going to negotiate with ourselves," he said.
McKay must keep the Senate united in the face of what is likely to become pressure to throw in the towel and move on.
"People don't understand why we have a Republican House and a Republican Senate and a Republican governor and seem to be fighting more than when we were a minority," said Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "They want us to conclude gracefully and peacefully in a statesmanlike fashion."
King has a stake in a smooth outcome because he succeeds McKay as Senate president in November, if the GOP retains control as expected. By nature, King seeks consensus over conflict.
"Everybody agrees there is an opportunity for everyone to win some and lose some," King said. While Gov. Jeb Bush and Feeney reject McKay's tax plan, they say they are willing to consider eliminating some exemptions. No specifics yet, however.
Business lobbyists are quietly trying to breathe new life into an idea they floated weeks ago. Associated Industries of Florida in December suggested a committee of members from both chambers to examine every tax exemption. AIF opposes McKay's idea of setting a goal of raising a specific amount of money, then picking and choosing exemptions to fit the target.
Despite McKay's public insistence that all is well, two senators said McKay considered shutting down the Senate for a week to let tensions subside.
"McKay wanted to go home, and his lieutenants talked him out of it. That I know," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Rossin of Royal Palm Beach.
McKay denied it. "Those words have never come out of my lips," he said.
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