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In tax tangle, Byrd keeps his footing

Neither Senate pressure nor editorial jabs have budged the House speaker during a budget showdown.

Published May 12, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - A smiling Johnnie Byrd arrives for his daily news conference, trailed by an entourage of aides and lawmakers. The House speaker from Plant City sees a tape recorder on a lectern and leans over the machine.

"No new taxes. Live within your means," Byrd says in a self-mocking tone, drawing laughs. "Just when you're tired of saying it, maybe it will sink in with this crowd."

Byrd has been saying it for months, and the message, replayed over and over, has sunk in. Senate President Jim King has ended his quest for more money and will enter this week's special session in agreement with Byrd on the bottom line. King said senators won't be "obstructionists."

By standing firm, Byrd looks like the winner of the tax brawl.

A new St. Petersburg Times poll shows more voters agree with him than disagree, but it is a mixed message. A majority of 55 percent said they do not support an increase in state taxes, but 52 percent said they would support higher taxes to avoid layoffs or cuts in summer school.

"The bottom line is that a majority of the people put Republicans in office, and the Republican philosophy is one of fiscal restraint," said Byrd, who keeps a copy of the book Those Dirty Rotten Taxes on his desk in the Capitol. "You don't raise taxes in the bottom of a recession. You cut taxes."

The newspaper poll also showed voters have a decidedly low opinion of the Legislature: 58 percent said they disapproved of the job lawmakers did in the regular session, while only 16 percent approved.

Senators hope the weeklong recess has given people time to lean on lawmakers to change their minds on taxes.

Pressure is building. School Board members warn of possible cuts in gifted programs, assistant principals and even sports. University presidents say incoming freshmen could be turned away. Arts lovers are upset with the House for cutting grants by 75 percent. Builders are angry that the House wants to reduce affordable housing money.

When he went home last week, Rep. Tom Anderson, a freshman Republican from Dunedin, got an earful from a PTA leader, community college president and even his fellow Rotarians.

"People have said they wouldn't mind paying more taxes," Anderson said. At Rotary Club luncheons in Dunedin and New Port Richey, he said people asked, "What's going on up there? What are you guys doing?"

Asked if people singled out Byrd for criticism, Anderson said: "I'm not going to answer that question. You can surmise for yourself. The public is generally not happy with what we are doing."

The same message arrives electronically, over and over, at Rep. Sandy Murman's office in Tampa. Sitting at her computer, Murman reads from a typical e-mail: "Such a drastic cut in education is unwarranted and foolhardy."

Murman, a Republican, however, said that the House budget actually increases education spending, but not as much as school districts say they need.

Across the state, Rep. Bob Allen of Merritt Island visited Little League games last week and heard a similar refrain.

"We claimed, and rightfully so, that Republicans needed a chance at the wheel, and that business and economic issues were our forte," Allen said. "I wanted to see the Republican Party excel at that. That's why I think there's so much frustration."

Byrd said he understands the frustration. But he posted a list of accomplishments on the House Web site that said: "We have spent the past 60 days conducting the people's business with a principled resolve."

The brickbats hurled at Anderson, Murman and Allen show that Byrd's agenda has exposed members of his party to criticism from constituents.

Byrd, 52, may be the most controversial speaker in the modern era. By needling the Senate over taxes and medical malpractice, Byrd came off as more of a showboat than a statesman, and his tactics left hard feelings.

When doctors descended on the Capitol to demand a limit on malpractice awards, Byrd posted a sign outside the House chamber telling them to go lobby the Senate, "140 feet behind you." King called the sign "misleading, slanted and extremely childish."

When senators suggested a tax on all home sales as a better replacement for impact fees on new homes, Byrd converted the House into a "Committee of the Whole" for the sole purpose of battering the idea. The House vote was 117-0.

Byrd has spent more money on public relations than any speaker in history, building a staff of 13 to crank out videos and press releases, and it brought him nothing but grief. He continues to be pilloried by newspapers across the state. "Nobody likes to take heat," Byrd said, "especially in the St. Pete Times, as out of touch with reality as you all are."

Lawmakers approved few major bills, but they laid the groundwork for higher telephone bills and sought to delay the cleanup of pollution in the Everglades, both of which drew hordes of high-priced lobbyists. Gainesville Sun cartoonist Jake Fuller depicted a smug lobbyist as saying "Let's just say a Byrd in our hand is worth two of Jeb Bush."

Some Republicans say Byrd is too distant from the rank-and-file membership and relies too much on a small cadre of policy advisers.

By holding his ground, staying on message like a candidate on the stump, and keeping the message simple, Byrd has applied the same strategy the Republican Party used effectively in rising to dominance in the mid 1990s.

Byrd repeats simple platitudes in response to questions about Florida's problems.

"Life is good" is a favorite Byrdism. Above all, Byrd says, "It's a great day in the state of Florida."

House members have little choice but to keep their faith in Byrd to resolve the budget impasse without offending the people back home. Murman said Byrd spent last week listening to individual lawmakers, and that he's keenly aware of public sentiment.

"I'm going to trust in him that he's going to lead us the right way," Murman said.

[Last modified May 12, 2003, 05:15:22]

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