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    Special interest money poured into tax fight

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- When state senators created a fundraising group to sell the public on the virtues of changing Florida's tax system, they promised to gather support from "individual citizens."

    The reality was something else: The Senate's campaign, like the opposition's, was fueled by special interest money.

    The Senate's campaign was financed by hospitals, mobile home parks, a Miami dog track and one of the biggest winners of the 2002 legislative session: the billboard industry.

    Only one individual contributed more than $100: its co-chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. All told, Latvala's Floridians Against Inequities in Rates (FAIR) raised a meager $65,000, enough for only a smattering of TV spots supporting Senate President John McKay's original plan to eliminate sales tax exemptions and lower the rate.

    Lawmakers approved a proposed constitutional amendment for a special legislative review of tax exemptions. Business groups plan to sue to block the measure from reaching voters.

    The Florida Hospital Association's $25,000 donation was the single biggest contribution to FAIR.

    A financial services company, Palm Beach Credit Adjustors, gave $15,000 and Vitas Healthcare Corp. of Miami, the nation's largest chain of hospices, gave $10,000. Vitas' owner, Hugh Westbrook, is a leading fundraiser for Sen. Bob Graham and was an early supporter of Janet Reno's gubernatorial campaign.

    McKay's foes raised $155,000 in the same three-month period, campaign reports show.

    The Coalition to Protect Florida's Economy received $50,000 each from the Florida Institute of CPAs and a political action committee for Realtors, and $25,000 from the Florida Phosphate Council.

    Neither campaign report tells the whole story.

    Business groups fighting the tax plan, led by the Florida Association of Broadcasters, got upward of $1-million in free air time for negative ads.

    At the same time, one of McKay's allies, the Florida Association of Counties, formed a separate group, Citizens for a Tax Rollback, that raised money. Latvala estimated the group spent about $150,000 on TV ads, but the source of the money is a mystery.

    The supporters started their campaign in response to the attack ads run by opponents.

    Latvala said the campaign for overhauling taxes would be financed by "individual citizens within the state who don't have any business here in Tallahassee . . . who aren't at the trough."

    Not quite.

    Latvala spearheaded a bill requiring local governments to compensate billboard owners for the removal of signs. Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill (HB 715) last week.

    The Florida Outdoor Advertising PAC contributed $5,000 on Jan. 28 at Latvala's request. "When you're raising money, you tend to go to people you're friendly with," Latvala said. "That's a group I've always been close to, because I came out of the advertising industry."

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