tampabay.com

Tax swap runs into words of caution

By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALEX LEARY
Published April 26, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - House Speaker Marco Rubio was 9 years old when Daniel Webster was first elected to the Florida Legislature.

For much of the next two decades, Webster toiled in obscurity. But when Republicans finally gained a majority in 1996, he became the first Republican House speaker in Florida in 122 years, emerging as a role model in his party and paving the way for Rubio's later success.

Now, 27 years later, the political paths of Rubio and Webster are intersecting in dramatic fashion over property taxes.

Rubio is the author of a bold plan to largely wipe out property taxes on homesteads and replace them with a higher sales tax to help run local governments. The unusual tax trade requires approval by two-thirds of voters in a statewide referendum.

After receiving a strong vote of support in the House, Rubio's proposal has suddenly lost momentum. That's due in part to Webster's vocal protests that it would produce billions more in taxes - putting its approval by voters in doubt - while shifting a large tax burden from the rich to the poor.

"The sales tax is a regressive tax," Webster said, "and the more you raise it, the more regressive it becomes."

Webster's plea for common ground, not anti-tax posturing, was echoed Wednesday by Gov. Charlie Crist, whose tax-cut plan is closer to the Senate's more modest version than the House's.

"I heard the words of Senator Webster. ... It looks like tough sledding to me, too," Crist said. Recalling a Rolling Stones song, he said, "You can't always get what you want."

Rubio has worked diligently to build a groundswell of support for his tax swap - calling radio talk shows, attending anti-tax rallies and securing support from the Republican Party, home builders and others.

David McKalip, a St. Petersburg neurosurgeon who heads the citizens group Cut Taxes Now, praised Rubio's hard-line stand.

"He's got to negotiate hard," McKalip said. "We need someone fighting for the taxpayers. Everyone else seems to be fighting for the governments."

Yet, even as Rubio has gained a statewide profile as a fierce tax cutter, the 35-year-old Miami lawyer has failed to convince the senators at the other end of the hall of his plan's merits.

In explaining his opposition, the tall, soft-spoken Webster made his case in his usual way, without raising his voice or making accusations.

"Anything he says, you have to give a lot of weight to," said George LeMieux, Crist's chief of staff. "I believe he's always doing what he thinks is the right thing."

As Senate majority leader, Webster has unassailable conservative credentials. He also embodies the institutional knowledge that's rapidly disappearing from the Legislature because of term limits.

But time is running out on Webster, too. His career as a legislator will end next year.

Webster's deep religious convictions stoked fears that as speaker, he would push a personal agenda, but he didn't. With a thin Republican majority, he governed with an even hand and was the first speaker to outlaw chaotic late-night sessions.

Two other political goals proved elusive, however. He unsuccessfully sought the Senate presidency and briefly ran for U.S. Senate in 2004.

Webster also helped lead the fight to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. A father of six and an air conditioning contractor in suburban Orlando, he's viewed as an expert on transportation.

"All of us respect him intensely, but I disagree with Danny on this one," said Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, a Rubio ally.

As Webster has poked holes in Rubio's proposal, Attkisson said some House Republicans have even questioned Webster's fiscal conservatism.

"We have sat and thought, 'Is this the Danny that we knew?' " Attkisson said. "But it's not personal at all."

Webster held his ground.

"I'm not into raising taxes. They are. So I don't think it's my position that's changed," he said.

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