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Looking for some honesty on taxes

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- If you own real estate, Gov. Jeb Bush may be raising your taxes this year. To paraphrase Walter Mondale, Bush won't tell you. I just did.

Actually, he won't do it by himself. The House and Senate will help. Yes, they do agree on something.

It's not what they will do but what they won't do that matters. By not doing it, they could make your school taxes go up.

It depends on whether the property appraiser thinks your property is worth more this year. When the taxable value goes up, you will owe the tax collector more unless the county, the city, the school board and other taxing authorities reduce their tax rates. No matter what they intend to do, the law requires the appraiser to notify you by first-class mail and by newspaper advertisement what may happen.

Part of the school board's rate, though, is beyond its power to control. This is the required local effort, which is dictated by the state. This year, that rate is 5.8 cents per $100 of value. It will be the same next year unless someone develops second thoughts that would be bad for the schools.

That same rate is expected to generate $417-million more next year, without which the governor's school figures wouldn't look rosy even to him. About a third of that will be from new construction that wasn't even taxed this year and so it isn't a tax increase. The remaining $285-million owes to the higher taxable value of property that was on the rolls this year.

By nearly unanimous consent, that is a tax increase. The governor dissents.

When reporters pressed him on it at a news conference last week, he sounded a little testy.

"It's an increase in value. It's not a tax increase. An increase in the rate would be an increase in taxes," Bush said. "If you all want to debate that, rather than ask questions, I'm more than happy to do it."

Bush's doublespeak has partly to do with the fact that he eagerly requested and happily got the Legislature to roll back the required local effort each of his first three years in office. That, of course, was a tax cut. Some education-friendly senators such as Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, repent of that and would boost the rate if they could. Latvala, for one, says he didn't get "a single thank-you" for having cut it.

Bush and the House have made a fetish of not allowing any tax increase on the table. To admit that they are raising taxes nonetheless would be embarrassing.

The same thing happens with the sales tax, of course, whenever prices go up and the tax rate doesn't go down. (It never does.) I'm not saying it should be cut, although there may be Neanderthal people who think so; Florida is already a shabby state. But it would be nice to hear more than just a few senators talking honestly about it.

If redistricting looks and sounds like a dogfight between Republicans and Democrats, there can be intramural struggles, too. The six Pinellas Republicans have had one of the more intriguing of those.

Reps. Frank Farkas of St. Petersburg and Leslie Waters of Seminole, who currently occupy the most vulnerable GOP seats (Clinton-Gore carried both districts and Democrats have represented them in Tallahassee) wanted more Republican-leaning constituents. Both succeeded in the plan the House passed Thursday, but not as much as if Farkas had gotten Feather Sound away from Rep. Kim Berfield of Clearwater.

"The disagreement was over neighborhoods," Farkas said Friday. "We worked it out."

Berfield compromised by conceding Venetian Isles to Farkas, but friends say she was surprised that Farkas wanted it.

What she thought Farkas didn't know -- though he says he did -- was that Cary Burns, who trailed him by only 201 votes in a GOP primary six years ago, now lives there. Burns is considering a rematch.

"I don't relish the idea of running against another Republican," Burns said last week, "but I believe the seat is so vulnerable at this point that there's going to be competition . . . I want it to be a Republican seat and I'm just afraid it's not going to be."

He cited the bad press Farkas got by forcing a committee vote on his "flexible benefit" health insurance bill without hearing people who had come, one from 400 miles away, to testify against it.

The health insurance bill (HB 913) is up for a final vote in the House Monday. Debate on amendments Thursday suggested that it may be in trouble. This is the bill to allow small group policies without any of the coverages state law now requires and with overall benefits as low as $10,000 a year. Farkas described it as a "last resort" for employers who could not afford more.

Opponents lost only narrowly, 55 to 58, on an amendment raising the annual floor to $50,000. Fifteen Republicans, including Berfield, voted against Farkas on that.

"This will really provide coverage, not just an insurance card," said the sponsor, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, who is a health care administrator and a physician's spouse.

The debate got so hot that Farkas inadvertently referred to his own proposal as "the bad policy, the bare bones." People wanting more, he contended, could buy extra coverage at their own expense.

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