tampabay.com

Rocks fly from (glass) House in tax debate

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published March 24, 2007


As the tax debate rages in Tallahassee, the Florida House is attacking the messenger.

It's an intriguing strategy, and its pettiness is telling.

The messenger in this case is Hill & Knowlton, the public relations giant hired by the Florida Association of Counties to craft the message that the House property tax plan would devastate local services.

The county group's communications director quit before the legislative session started. In need of help, it hired Hill & Knowlton and will pay the firm $37,500 for the session, said Cragin Mosteller, the county group's spokeswoman.

Hill & Knowlton is a specialist in crisis management. In Florida, on big issues, it's no longer enough to merely hire lobbyists in Tallahassee. A parallel public relations operation is needed for what the ever-expanding industry calls "message advocacy."

PR people arrange press conferences, draft op-ed columns and generate letters to the editor. They try to protect their clients from being bludgeoned by the Legislature. That's the way it is.

Hill & Knowlton's hiring sent the House Republican office into spin mode, linking the firm to "Enron, Big Oil and Big Tobacco," leaving unsaid the fact that all three have been bulwarks of the Republican Party's donor base.

"Hill & Knowlton are the best in the business when it comes to mounting a successful defense of the indefensible, which makes them a natural choice for out-of-control local governments," said Albert Martinez of the House Republican office. "The people should know that their local governments are spending taxpayer money to make sure property tax relief is defeated."

At a public hearing, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, bored in on Bob English, a Polk County commissioner who had criticized the House tax plan.

Cannon asked English if he knew the firm "previously represented Big Tobacco and Enron and companies like that," or that the association of counties charged an assessment to pay Hill & Knowlton's fee.

"I have not heard that, no," English said.

The House put out a video of a meeting in which Leon County Commissioner Cliff Thaell mentioned the "special assessment." Thaell said he misspoke and apologized for any confusion.

The tenacious Cannon asked English whether it would trouble taxpayers if they knew counties were spending tax money to fight a tax-cut plan.

"Probably, yes," English said.

No kidding. But the orchestrated attack against Hill & Knowlton was financed by taxpayers, too, by a state employee on state time in a government office.

The Legislature has long had partisan gunslingers on the state payroll. Rep. Marco Rubio has two in the House majority office (Democrats have one). The Republican pair earn a combined $158,000 a year.

Now for the greatest irony: Hill & Knowlton doesn't like publicity.

Ron Bartlett, a senior vice president, said his firm worked for oil companies "in crisis circumstances," and represented Enron in "post-bankruptcy communication" but has not worked for Big Tobacco since the 1960s.

"We're surprised that after one month's effort, we've created such a stir in the House," Bartlett said. "Hill & Knowlton is not the story."

The story, he said, is the danger of state-mandated cuts that would hurt local services.

Orange County Commissioner Teresa Jacobs, president-elect of the county group, defended the PR expenditure as legitimate and necessary.

"There's a great deal of confusion at the grass roots level as to what these tax proposals mean," Jacobs said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.