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The Constitution is exactly where tax reform belongs

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - The appropriations chairman sat in his Senate office late one afternoon preaching tax reform with a passion that another man might reserve for sports or sex.

The best tax structure for business, he insisted, would have the broadest possible base and lowest possible rate. Florida had it exactly backward. By golly, he was going to fix that.

That was Jim Horne, before the fall. John McKay, the Senate president, was counting on him to help enact tax reform in the 2002 session. Then Gov. Jeb Bush enlisted Horne to run the Department of Education, and Horne was no longer touting tax reform to journalists or to anyone else. (I wonder sometimes if that's one of the reasons why Bush picked him.)

As it turned out, nothing and no one could have helped McKay get tax reform past the House of Representatives. Attack-ad politicking, secret slush funds and term limits have dumbed it down to where it more nearly resembles a mosh pit than a representative legislative assembly.

McKay isn't giving up. He has set up a committee called Floridians Against Inequities in Rates - FAIR, of course - to get tax reform into the Constitution by initiative. Bob Milligan, the former comptroller, is his co-chair. Jack Latvala, the former state senator, is treasurer.

The Web site: You can download the petition there or send a request to have copies mailed. For regular mail, the address is P.O. Box 13689, Tallahassee 32317.

Yes, there are too many initiatives, some of which are beyond silly, and their success has less to do with whether they belong in the Constitution than with the money behind them.

But this isn't one of those. If sensible tax policy is not a splendidly appropriate use of the Constitution, nothing is. McKay, Milligan and Latvala - Republicans all - are not in this to waste their time or other people's money. Milligan, for one, didn't earn three stars in the Marine Corps by undertaking suicide missions. McKay is a textbook conservative. Before his Senate career, Latvala built a business in getting other people elected.

Florida has not had a tax reform since Gov. Reubin Askew, 32 years ago, put through the corporate profits tax and used part of the proceeds to take the sales tax off household rent and utilities.

The 1987 Legislature and then-Gov. Bob Martinez muffed the next best chance by designing a new tax on services so inartfully (including a secret drafting session at a lobbyist's townhouse) that they had to come back and repeal it. Reform was on the table in 1987 only because the 1986 session had voted to "sunset" all exemptions for services and 44 other specified targets, all of which would be taxed unless the next session said otherwise. The Fairness Initiative incorporates a similar but broader strategy.

What it does not do - (the lies are surely forming even now) - is to require the Legislature to tax food, prescription drugs, health services, and residential rent, electricity or heating fuel. These are off the table as far as the sunset process is concerned. You can get the text and read it for yourself.

But by July 1, 2007, and by every 10th anniversary the Legislature would be required to review all other exemptions and exclusions with an eye to encouraging tax fairness, economic development, charity and other hallowed public purposes. To renew any exemption would require a single-subject bill passed by a three-fifths vote. If the bill doesn't pass, the exemption expires and the tax is applied.

It should not, of course, have to come to that. Legislators ought to do the job themselves. Trouble is, too many of them are so far beyond shame that they smell nothing wrong with exempting private charter fishing boats and stadium skyboxes while nearly every entertainment that ordinary folk pay for gets taxed. Or with taxing lawn mowers but not lawn services. There is a long list of these ironies and incongruities.

"I'm not suggesting we change the tax system," says Milligan. "I'm just suggesting it work properly."

The way McKay sees it, the business community doesn't have a problem with this; it's only some of their professional lobbyists who do. Their reputation as tax killers is on the line. Already, their lips are forming the familiar refrain: Tax reform may be a good idea, but it doesn't belong in the Constitution.

The heck it doesn't. The Constitution is already chock-full of details in regard to taxes as well as spending. As to spending, it specifically requires annual budgeting. Except for trust funds, which sunset every four years and need three-fifths votes to be renewed, the Legislature cannot vote to spend money for more than one year at a time. Why, then, should it be able to give away money - which is what a tax exemption does - in perpetuity? Why shouldn't these tax expenditures be voted on every year, just like the budget?

Still, every 10 years is a much better deal than never. Send for your petition today. I have already signed and mailed mine.

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Martin Dyckman: The Constitution is exactly where tax reform belongs
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Chase Squires: Grab a life jacket; an old friend is sinking
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