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Officials' desire to toe the tax line spirals into absurd obsession

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2003

There's a common theme at work here.

In Tallahassee, the refrain is that our state government must "live within its means."

In St. Petersburg, the City Council insists that no matter what harm results, the tax rate must remain at precisely 7.14 mills.

At both levels, the tail is wagging the dog. We start with an entirely arbitrary dollar figure. Anything above that figure is liberal and undesirable. Anything below it is wisely "living within our means." It does not matter what needs exist or what the citizens might want.

On the state level, "living within our means" is the favorite saying of Johnnie Byrd, the fascinating leader of our state House. To Byrd, Florida's "means" refers to that number of dollars generated by Florida's random, stupid, unfair and regressive tax structure.

"Sorry, that's the magic number, and I can't spend a dime more," the speaker in effect says of this Wizard of Oz sum, as though it is the product of a sacred calculation. In fact, the state's revenue is only a function of which special interests had enough clout in the Legislature to get tax breaks.

If the speaker were wedded to a tax level pegged to a percentage of the state's economy or even one that kept Florida at a certain rank among the 50 states, at least that would be a rational and debatable yardstick.

But here we are saying that we will make all our decisions about abused kids, medically needy folks and crowded schools NOT on the basis of need, but on the basis of the fact that some ostrich farmer hired a good lobbyist to get a loophole in the tax code.

That is the principal limiting factor on the state's "means." That is how Florida has calculated the "means" to which the honorable speaker so closely clings.

Last week in St. Petersburg, there was an amusing discussion when City Council members were presented with a list of cuts to balance the budget but keep the city's millage rate the same. Among the proposals:

-- Killing a program to clean up graffiti.

-- Shutting down some brush-collection sites and cutting the hours of others.

-- Gutting the staff of the Boyd Hill Nature Park.

-- Raising fees for swimming pools and other city services.

Unhappy stuff, but a matter of grim necessity -- that is, as long as your only public-policy goal is to keep the magic millage at 7.14.

As council member Bill Foster put it:

"So, the grass at the parks might be an inch higher than you're used to. Deal with it. We've got some more important things that we've got to focus on."

More important things, such as being able to brag that the tax rate stayed the same.

Now, it might seem like a trivial thing, the length of the grass in the public parks, or letting graffiti linger longer in St. Petersburg's public places. Certainly that was the tone intended by my friend Bill Foster.

And yet, the quality of St. Petersburg's public life is its single greatest asset. Few U.S. cities have been as smart about their common space. I would not be talking so breezily about starting to let it slide.

I am not convinced that the majority of residents of St. Petersburg -- or the majority of taxpayers of Florida -- place "no new taxes, never, no matter what" above any other goal. Just the opposite. All of our experience shows that voters will support reasonable tax increases for specific ideas that they support.

The rhetoric of "no new taxes, never, no matter what" came to power in America in the late 1970s as a reaction to decades of New Deal-style government expansion. It was a healthy reaction.

But the bad guys were defeated a long time ago. There is not a level of government -- not Congress, not our Legislature and not even our city councils and county commissions -- where rabid, drooling, liberal tax-and-spenders hold the power. Politicians everywhere contort themselves to hold down taxes.

The pendulum has swung far. We have come to this place, where decision-makers cling to arbitrary, simple-minded numbers instead of exercising tough judgment.

The people are more reasonable than that. Nobody is saying, "Hey, I'd love to get jacked up for a big, fat tax increase." But neither do most people choose to throw out the baby because of the cost of the bathwater.

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