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Governor, it's time to lead

Published April 22, 2007


It's time for Gov. Charlie Crist to lead on tax relief. With two weeks left in the legislative session and negotiations beginning on significantly different House and Senate plans, a rush to a quick fix for a complicated problem would be a serious mistake. The wrong approach could create further inequities and instability in a patchwork tax structure - and cloud the future of both the Sunshine State's economy and a new governor whose start has been so impressive.

Sticking to generalities and respecting the Legislature has served Crist well politically. He didn't win the election on the strength of his policy papers. Leaving legislative details to lawmakers, encouraging bipartisanship and embracing compromise have brought a refreshing atmosphere to Tallahassee after eight years of former Gov. Jeb Bush's micromanagement. The approach served Crist well during January's special session on property insurance, but it is important that the governor be more specific publicly and privately in the tax relief debate.

Property insurance laws will continue to be massaged, but Florida stands on the brink of the most significant overhaul of the tax structure in 20 years. That last attempt, extending the sales tax to services in 1987, collapsed after just six months. Gov. Bob Martinez never recovered and lost a re-election bid. Legislators have generally steered away from tax reform since, and occasional attempts to straighten out an unfair system have never gotten traction.

This state cannot afford to botch this opportunity. State-mandated property tax rollbacks and future revenue caps on local governments do not respect local control and are not the most thoughtful approach to tax relief. But with those concepts in both the House and Senate plans, Crist should ensure that any compromise provides reasonable tax relief but does not make it impossible for cities and counties to deliver services their residents depend upon. He need only look to his hometown and listen to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker talk about the damage that could be inflicted on well-run cities if lawmakers act too rashly.

There are other factors for the governor to consider as well. The House's irrational attempt to deeply cut or abolish property taxes on homesteads by increasing the sales tax up to 2.5 cents requires a constitutional amendment. So do the Senate's more intriguing proposals to double the homestead exemption for first-time homebuyers and enable existing homeowners to take their Save Our Homes tax break with them when they move. The governor does not sign into law or veto constitutional amendments approved by the Legislature, so it would be wise for Crist to make his views known before lawmakers take any action.

Meanwhile, the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders is just beginning to meet. It also has the authority to place constitutional amendments directly on the November 2008 ballot. Crist should consider whether the commission has both more time and a better forum to consider equitable, complicated tax reform.

The governor indicated in an interview Friday he is considering these factors. He also said he is more involved discussing the details of the tax relief proposals privately with legislators than his broad public statements suggest. And, as always, Crist remains optimistic there is "ample time for reasonable, prudent and thoughtful" agreement.

Reasonable, prudent and thoughtful. Those are key measurements, and the Legislature isn't there yet on tax relief. For the sake of Florida's future and his own, it will be incumbent upon the governor to ensure any tax relief package meets those tests.

[Last modified April 21, 2007, 19:36:03]

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