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Ballot initiative takes aim at tax loopholes

The FAIR proposal's goal is to force a legislative review of tax exemptions and the ultimate repeal of many.

Published January 23, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - A bipartisan group of state government experts on Thursday blamed loopholes in the tax system for many of Florida's failings, and they are pushing a citizen initiative to force legislators to take a fresh look at hundreds of tax exemptions.

Their proposal, which could appear on the November ballot, is called the FAIR amendment, for Floridians Against Inequitable Rates. It's an outgrowth of a failed effort in 2002 to force the Legislature to review hundreds of tax breaks on such things as charter boats and stadium skyboxes.

All three leaders of the FAIR campaign are Republicans: former Senate President John McKay of Bradenton, who led an unsuccessful effort to overhaul the tax system two years ago; former Comptroller Bob Milligan; and former state Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor.

They say they want to bring fairness and stability to a regressive tax code that caters to special interests at the expense of the poor. Opponents, led by Gov. Jeb Bush, suspect it is a way to raise taxes.

Former Florida State University president Sandy D'Alemberte gave a scathing critique of the state's shrinking support of higher education. He did not mention Bush's name, but traced the "great slide" to 1999, the year Bush took office.

D'Alemberte said the bottom-line increases in education each year make it look like more is being spent, but that overlooks the flood of new students in fast-growing Florida.

"What we are really doing is systematically disinvesting in higher education, and that disinvestment is going to have consequences for the state of Florida," D'Alemberte said.

The initiative must first pass a legal review by the state Supreme Court. Then supporters must collect nearly a half-million signatures from voters by August as lawmakers and business groups try to make it tougher to amend the state Constitution.

"We're going to have to wake people up, and I think this is the only way to do it," said Milligan, who said Floridians must force lawmakers to act.

Supporters include the Florida PTA, Florida School Boards Association, League of Women Voters, AARP, AFL-CIO, Common Cause and the Pinellas and Hillsborough school boards.

With the characteristic bluntness that alienated many business leaders, McKay flatly predicted the proposal will pass if it makes it to the ballot. He said opposition arguments will be lost in the "clutter" of ads by other candidates.

McKay argued that the system penalizes families and rewards the rich. He said cat food for a family pet is taxed but feed bought for racing animals is exempt, and a fishing rod and reel bought at a store is taxed, but a charter fishing boat rental is tax-free.

Others who support the FAIR proposal include Jim Hamilton, a top Hillsborough County school official; Leon County Commissioner Cliff Thaell, president-elect of the Florida Association of Counties; and Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, a recently deposed chairman of the Senate Finance and Tax Committee.

At a legislative retreat Thursday, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, again sounded the alarm against the Legislature's habit of propping up budgets by paying for ongoing programs with one-time sources of money. Lee described the budgeting as giving the public "the illusion that everything is fine in Florida."

Bush and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, have previously resisted a review of tax exemptions. Both favor the opposite: more tax cuts.

Bush said he supports a fair review of exemptions, "but it shouldn't be done to raise taxes."

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 23, 2004, 01:32:51]

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