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    Tax plan opposition may cost broadcasters

    Senate leader John McKay seeks legislative scrutiny of Florida broadcasters' share of tax dollars.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 27, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- For weeks, TV and radio stations across Florida devoted free air time hammering Senate President John McKay's tax overhaul plan as "a gigantic increase for all Floridians."

    Now it's payback time.

    Tucked in a Senate budget bill is a single sentence that could cost the Florida Association of Broadcasters, which created the attack ads, more than $500,000 a year in money from tax dollars. The state pays stations to air commercials touting state programs, and McKay wants the Legislature to scrutinize how the money is being spent.

    "It's the right thing to do," McKay said. "It's called accountability."

    "It looks awfully political," said Pat Roberts, the ads' creator and president of the broadcasters' association. "But I understand the political process."

    The move is the first tangible evidence that McKay is using the power of his office to punish his tax plan opponents. For weeks, the Capitol has been abuzz with sinister tales of McKay browbeating senators or threatening opponents. But no threat was verified until now.

    Asked if it was his idea to tuck the provision inside a 23-page budget-related bill, McKay said: "I don't remember, because we've discussed it so much, but I certainly endorse it."

    The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote on the provision Thursday.

    Although the change would not kill the program outright, it would give legislators power over contracts now handled exclusively by state agencies.

    Every contract of more than $5,000 would have to be approved by the Legislative Budget Commission, which oversees unplanned expenditures.

    Several weeks ago, McKay said he was "researching" the question of why public money was going to a group zealously trying to kill his proposal to let voters decide whether to lower the tax rate and broaden the tax base by taxing many services. TV advertising was not one of the services McKay suggested taxing, but the harsh, campaign-style ads ran anyway.

    For 14 years, the state has bought air time from TV and radio outlets to promote hurricane readiness, Army National Guard recruiting, the 10-20-Life law or consumer protection. They are called noncommercial sustaining announcements, or NCSAs.

    The contracts between state agencies and broadcasters require stations to run messages at no more than one-third the rate charged to other advertisers. For example, the Department of Corrections is spending $110,000 to get $310,000 in advertising.

    "Our program works well if you want to reach every market and all the people," Roberts said. He said he could not fully document the value of the spots that have run.

    TV stations are overwhelmed with demands for free air time and still provide plenty of that for the state, such as $1.5-million in time for tourism messages after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    After the Florida Association of Broadcasters began attacking McKay's plan, the chief fundraiser for the effort, Murray Green, sent a letter to station executives Jan. 23, urging them to keep running the state-sponsored spots because they help subsidize the broadcasters' group.

    "It is imperative that NCSA spots continue to run as scheduled," Green wrote. "A large part of the funding of FAB comes from the NCSA spots, and as a result of their schedules, we have managed to keep FAB dues very low."

    McKay has called the TV group's ads "outright lies" and has accused Roberts of being "dishonest" in his anti-tax claims. He said Roberts should have no problem defending his group's use of public dollars.

    -- Times staff writer Eric Deggans and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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