Senator breaks ranks on tax plan
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush gained new momentum and a powerful ally Wednesday in his fight to kill a state Senate plan that would remove some tax breaks to help public education.
Senate Majority Leader Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican who is set to take control of the chamber in November, broke ranks with Senate President John McKay and announced his opposition to the tax plan.
The turnabout by King is a big victory for Bush, who spent part of this week summoning senators to oppose what he calls "one of the largest tax increases in the state's history."
Despite King's defection, McKay and his supporters won't concede defeat. They did postpone today's scheduled budget debate, saying they wanted to wait for fresh estimates Friday on how much new money the state is expected to get next year. The estimate could be $600-million or more, thanks to the improving economy.
McKay minimized King's opposition as "a bump in the road" and said he still had enough votes to pass a Senate budget.
Bush's allies praised King. House Speaker Tom Feeney said King showed "real leadership," and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan said King showed "courage."
Supporters of the tax plan saw things differently.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said it was obvious King "was under a lot of pressure." Senate Democratic leader Tom Rossin of Royal Palm Beach suggested King buckled under pressure from Bush. "I know he talked to the governor a lot," Rossin said.
King announced his decision on a day in which his hometown newspaper, the Florida Times-Union, editorially urged him to declare his opposition and assert himself. But King cited an outpouring of criticism from Jacksonville-area constituents. "What this is is a disagreement on a tax issue," King said.
The pressure was obvious in his demeanor. Ordinarily one of the Legislature's most accessible members, King dodged reporters for several hours after word spread that he was abandoning the Senate ship.
Later, he made a short statement and avoided questions, leaving through a corridor not accessible to reporters. He took pains to dispel perceptions that he was trying to seize power and to further weaken McKay.
"This has no bearing whatsoever, in spite of what the perception might be, of a takeover by me of power in this chamber," King said.
McKay will leave office in November because of term limits, and King has been designated as his successor. That distinction makes King nearly as powerful as McKay because returning senators need him to attain favorable committee assignments and to get their bills passed.
King has been in a tight spot for weeks as the deadlock over McKay's ambitious plan to overhaul taxes turned into a power struggle between the Senate and the governor, who opposed it.
Republicans want to appear pro-education and antitax at the same time, and that is proving to be a delicate balancing act.
Longtime Capitol observers could not recall when a majority leader opposed his party's budget. Some saw it as more proof of growing anxiety in the highest reaches of the Republican Party that the moderates' call for new taxes could spell doom in November.
After the House killed its version of McKay's tax overhaul plan to reduce the sales tax rate and eliminate nearly 100 exemptions, a different proposal was hatched by two Pinellas Republicans, Sens. Don Sullivan and Jack Latvala.
They proposed lifting $880-million in exemptions and spending the new money on education. The strategy was to force Bush to embrace new taxes for education, or, defend tax breaks for the wealthy.
The plan would tax data processing, pro sports teams, skyboxes, public relations, management consulting, lobbying and charter boats. The tax breaks would be repealed for one year.
Sullivan has been most vocal in criticizing the governor and Feeney, saying $1-billion more would do no more than restore schools to where they were one year ago, before deep budget cuts.
Lobbyist and Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said GOP leaders were troubled by comments such as Sullivan's, and King knew it.
"Republicans have become increasingly unhappy with the criticism of the governor's stewardship that is implied in the Senate leadership's campaign for higher taxes," Stipanovich said.
Bush, eager to preserve the Republican Party's tax-cutting reputation as he seeks re-election to a second term, has aggressively lobbied senators to oppose their own budget. He urged 20,000 supporters around the state to flood King's office, urging a no vote.
The state teachers' union is airing radio ads urging listeners to call Gov. Bush to encourage him to spend more on education.
Bush has encouraged the Senate to wait for Friday's revenue projections, which could mean an extra $600-million for next year. He hopes that will ease the pressure to raise taxes.
But even that might not break the deadlock. If that estimate comes through, McKay suggested Wednesday repealing $280-million in tax breaks to reach a Senate target of $880-million more for education.
-- Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.
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