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    Senate okays $900-million tax proposal to help schools

    By STEVE BOUSQUET and LUCY MORGAN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 1, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Senate budget writers voted Thursday to raise $900-million more for schools by taxing public relations, lobbying, computer software, tanning beds and other services for one year. But the House is expected to pass a budget today without the additional money, forcing a showdown with three weeks left in the regular session.

    The Senate Appropriations Committee's 16-3 vote followed an impassioned speech by Sen. Don Sullivan, the St. Petersburg Republican who heads a budget subcommittee on education. He cited Florida's low ranking in education and said public schools, community colleges and universities cannot keep up with staggering enrollment growth and rising costs.

    The Senate proposal would increase state aid to Tampa Bay area counties by an average of 6 percent. But even with $878-million in new money, Sullivan said, schools would be no better off than a year ago.

    "The current budget preserves the status quo," Sullivan said. "It does not move us forward. It stifles innovation. It stifles those who are creative, and it makes a drudgery of working in our schools. It locks us in place."

    Sullivan and other Republican moderates, such as Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, think they have found a way to give Senate President John McKay some of the tax changes he wants while getting more money to schools.

    But House Speaker Tom Feeney and Gov. Jeb Bush want no part of it. "It looks to me like the Senate wants to go into overtime," Feeney said. "Some of this may be posturing. Maybe they have a real proposal somewhere."

    Bush said the Senate has shifted from talking about "tax reform to a tax increase." He said he thinks education needs can be met without raising taxes.

    Sullivan, who is leaving the Senate because of term limits, has been increasingly critical of his fellow Republicans on education spending. "At some point, you have to realize that part of the problem is here in Tallahassee," Sullivan said without mentioning Feeney or Bush by name.

    Two senators, Republicans Locke Burt of Ormond Beach and Debby Sanderson of Fort Lauderdale, argued against the tax plan. Burt, a candidate for attorney general, said some exemptions that would be repealed are so broad he was not sure of their effect.

    Sanderson complained she was being asked "to vote for nearly $1-billion in new taxes on the basis of a press release." In the end, however, Sanderson voted for the budget and Burt voted no, as did Republicans Alex Villalobos of Miami and Rudy Garcia of Hialeah.

    "I voted no," Garcia told the governor as they stood beside a steaming skillet filled with paella during Dade County Days in a frigid Capitol courtyard. "Good for you," Bush said.

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    From the Times state desk