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Aided by cheering in street, tax cut plan heads to a vote

The state House plan would allow property tax relief and an increase in sales taxes.

By ALEX LEARY
Published April 18, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- Backed by a cheering section of hundreds of frustrated taxpayers Tuesday, House Speaker Marco Rubio maneuvered his far-reaching property tax plan into position for a key vote today.

After a rally concluded outside the Capitol, the GOP-controlled House beat back Democratic criticism on the plan to abolish property taxes on homesteads in exchange for a 2.5 percent sales tax increase.

"In Florida, we don't tax food. We don't tax medicine. How can we tax the American dream?" Rubio said.

The House would also roll back local government property taxes to 2001 levels and cap future growth, trimming billions from city and county budgets.

Passage is likely today, though some rank-and-file Republicans may defect, skittish about voting for a $9.2-billion sales tax.

But Rubio's plan may go no further. The more moderate Senate has rejected any sales tax increase. The Senate proposal calls for a rollback to 2005 and would allow homeowners to carry the Save Our Homes benefit to new dwellings. The plan is to be voted on Friday.

House Republicans heralded the $35-billion package as the largest tax cut in state history while Democrats bored in on the plan's perceived vulnerability: the sales tax increase.

"Florida would have the highest sales tax in the nation, at 8.5 percent, and some counties would have sales taxes as high as 10 percent," said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, held up a copy of Rush Limbaugh's property tax bill, saying the radio host would save $419,000 on his $23-million Palm Beach home.

Democrats offered an amendment that would keep a rollback on local government budgets to 2001, with a cap on growth based on inflation, but eliminate the sales tax swap.

But the amendment failed on a party-line vote. Republican Gayle Harrell of Stuart, who is running for Congress, voted with Democrats.

"Only in Tallahassee could a bunch of politicians declare that a $7-billion net tax savings is a tax increase. This is a political stunt," scoffed Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach.

The House plan, which requires a constitutional amendment, calls for a 1 percent sales tax increase to eliminate property taxes for schools. Voters in each of Florida's 67 counties would then vote on whether to eliminate all other property taxes on primary homes for an additional 1.5 percent in sales tax.

Time and again Tuesday, Democrats tried to alter the plan. Each time they came up short.

The stagecraft inside the House chamber could not match what went on outside the Capitol.

An hour before the House debate began, more than 300 people staged a rally on the steps of the Old Capitol, demanding lower tax bills. The turnout fell short of the 1,000 promised by a Republican-backed group calling itself Floridians For Property Tax Reform, but it was a boisterous bunch.

"Can you say it with me? Cut taxes now. ... Let them hear it all over the state - Cut taxes now," shouted David McKalip, a St. Petersburg doctor and antitax activist who helped organize the rally, which clearly sided with Rubio's plan.

Bused in from across the state, many in the crowd wore yellow T-shirts with picture of a man pulling out his hair. Signs illustrated their anger. "Git 'er done or don't come home," read one held aloft by Hernando County resident Wayne Dukes.

Rubio, who was showered with a hero's applause, pledged to work with "our friends in the Senate." Yet he said the House could accept only the plan that saved taxpayers most. And he seemed to disparage Senate talk of a bipartisan effort.

"I can get you a consensus package," Rubio said. "But consensus isn't going to pay your bills."

While Gov. Charlie Crist made an appearance, senators were a no-show. "It's too scripted," said Sen. Dan Webster, the majority leader.

Property tax plans 

THE HOUSE
Status: Vote expected today.
Total savings: $35-billion over five years (originally the House estimated $25-billion).
How it would work: Voters in each county could choose to either eliminate property tax on primary homes and raise the sales tax 2.5 percent, or roll back tax revenue for cities and counties to 2000-01 levels. Budgets could grow with the population.

THE SENATE
Status: A vote is expected Friday.
Total savings: $12.3-billion over five years.
How it would work: Roll back property tax revenue for cities and counties to 2005 levels, where they would freeze for one year. After that, budgets could grow with the population. It would also: