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Antitax ideology in Tallahassee hobbles Florida's future

Published May 4, 2003

Florida is not the only state where elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, are facing painful budget choices. In fact, some states are even worse off. California is in a budget meltdown. Nor is Florida the only state where the governor and the legislature can't agree on how to distribute the budget pain. But Florida has one problem most states don't - the political character of its antitax Republican leadership.

These conservative ideologues put tax cuts for corporations and wealthy investors ahead of education, social services and environmental protection. For them, government is the problem, not the solution. That is the organizing principle of their politics. It is a political mentality that jeopardizes the quality of life in Florida's future.

Johnnie Byrd is a rigid antitax ideologue who, as speaker of the House of Representatives, rules with an iron fist and a perverted view of government's responsibilities to the people it serves. Byrd deserves most of the blame for the legislative disaster in Tallahassee, where Republicans control the legislative and executive branches of government. However, Byrd is only the most rabid and arrogant carrier of this antitax ideology.

Gov. Jeb Bush may differ with Byrd on specific issues, but they share the same basic political philosophy. Their hypocrisy is bold. They cut taxes at a time when the state is wrestling with a budget crisis and making cuts in programs that hurt our schools and our most vulnerable citizens. They refuse to consider closing sales tax exemptions for special interests in the name of fairness and sharing the burden. Instead, they shift state responsibilities to financially strapped local governments and force cities and counties to raise property taxes and fees for services.

Byrd, of course, isn't opposed to increasing state revenue as long as it doesn't involve anything that, in his twisted political mind, resembles a tax increase. To come up with new sources of revenue he favors increasing tuition for college students, license fees for hunters and drivers, and traffic fines for motorists. You see, in Byrd's mind, these are not taxes, even though they essentially are. They fall hardest on the little people, not the special interests.

Somehow, Florida will manage its current budget crisis with spending cuts that will have real consequences for people. It won't be a pretty sight, but the state will limp along while the quality of life deteriorates. Floridians won't have the kind of public schools or universities their children deserve. Maybe the poor can get by with less health care. The Everglades can wait, even if it means the unraveling of the state-federal partnership to clean up this natural wonder. No matter, Florida can still call itself a "low-tax state" and beckon Northerners to come on down to paradise. They may not realize paradise is in trouble until they get here.

Next door in Georgia, meanwhile, Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor of that state since Reconstruction, calls himself a Ronald Reagan conservative. When he is not trying to untangle himself from a Confederate flag controversy that has been a huge distraction of his own making, Perdue has been trying to eliminate the $620-million budget shortfall he faced when he took office in January. After proposing 10 percent across-the-board cuts in a budget that included no money for pay raises for any state employee, including teachers, the governor proposed a modest increase in the cigarette tax.

For that, he came under fierce attack from antitax ideologues. A Stephen Moore column in National Review caught the governor's eye: "Impeach Governor Sonny Perdue: Republicans are not the pro-tax party in Georgia." It also suggested Perdue had betrayed Ronald Reagan's tax-cut legacy.

Perdue fired back in a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Here's some of what he said:

"I wonder whether Moore recalls that when Reagan took office as governor of California in 1967, he faced a fiscal crisis similar to Georgia's. After ordering 10 percent across-the-board cuts, a hiring freeze and other measures, Reagan reluctantly resorted to a tax increase to balance the state budget.

"That didn't make him a tax-and-spend liberal. It made him a responsible leader who, when the crisis had passed, went on to cut spending, reduce the size of state government and ultimately create a surplus he returned to the people.

"It is easy for ideologues to lob criticism from an ivory tower, but down here on the ground, responsible conservative leaders have to be intellectually honest in dealing with the unpleasant realities that face us. Reagan understood that."

It's too bad President Bush, Gov. Bush, Speaker Byrd and all the other tax-cut zealots don't. Maybe they should be asking themselves this question: What would Ronald Reagan do?

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