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Politics

On special session stage, he'll star

Marco Rubio makes his mark statewide as Mr. Tax Reform.

By ALEX LEARY
Published June 10, 2007


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The young man, articulate and handsome, stood before the crowd at the Palace Grand reception hall, orchestrating a frenzy over property taxes.

"Is a 25 percent cut enough?" he called out. "No!" the audience cried. "Fifty percent?"

"Yes!"

Struck by the campaignlike atmosphere, Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden turned to her husband and asked, "Is this guy running for governor?"

Marco Rubio, speaker of the Florida House, has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks, making the pitch for huge property tax cuts before crowds like the one in Spring Hill on May 30.

He has been on radio and TV, including Nightline and PBS's NewsHour. He has hosted telephone conference calls with dozens of people. A Republican Party-funded Web site promotes his ideas.

More than anyone -- including Gov. Charlie Crist -- the 36-year-old from Miami has become the face of the property tax debate in Florida. He seized the issue early this year and proposed a dramatic plan to trade property taxes for a higher sales tax.

The tax swap died -- not before gaining national attention - yet that has done little to weaken Rubio's zeal. Or his standing. As lawmakers prepare for a special session on Tuesday, no one's voice matters more.

Rubio's insistence on deep cuts contributed greatly, if not entirely, to the stalemate that led to a special session. But it may also reward taxpayers with more relief and put a bigger hurt on local governments -- factors that only elevate his stature as the tax cut king.

Early reaction was mixed to a five-year plan released Friday that calls for a rollback of local governments' tax revenues and expansion of the homestead exemption. Some said that Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt gave government a pass and that the cuts go mostly to those who need them least -- primary homeowners.

"It's a good first step," David Daniel, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said Saturday. He credits Rubio for "beating the hammer," but worries the plan may add to the increasing tax burden assumed by business and nonhomestead property.

"It's got to be a balancing act," Daniel said.

The next two weeks will test Rubio's ability and desire to walk that line.

"If we come out with meaningful reform, Marco wins," said Rep. Jack Seiler, a prominent Democrat from Broward County. "The public will never remember that he was the proponent of the tax swap."

Failure may also have its benefits. Rubio has said that if lawmakers pass a "Tallahassee special" he will join with citizen groups that want to change the tax structure through a ballot initiative.

Rubio insists something must get done, and he plays down his role in the process with modesty that belies his ambitions.

"Speakers come and go," he said. "I'm not sure five years from now that someone is going to remember that I was at their town hall meeting in Hernando County."

Still, his public schedule rivals that of a candidate for statewide office. Last week, while Crist was resting after his trip to Israel and Jordan, Rubio was out and on message:

MONDAY: 8:30 a.m. meeting with taxpayers at the Coffee Cup Restaurant in Pensacola. 11 a.m. appearance in Destin with Rep. Ray Sansom, next in line to become speaker. 1 p.m. meeting in Panama City with the Bay Tax Foundation.

TUESDAY: 3:30 p.m. meeting with Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. 7 p.m. interview on Univision. 8 p.m. town hall meeting at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Miami.

WEDNESDAY: 11:45 a.m. flight to Orlando from Miami. 1 p.m. conference call with Florida Association of Realtors. 2 p.m. interview on WESH-Ch. 2. 3 p.m. interview with Central Florida News 13. 3:45 p.m. interview on News 13 En Espanol.

The Republican Party-sponsored trips have afforded Rubio crucial face time with local politicians, business leaders and grass roots political organizers.

He has made lasting contacts with influential Realtors and others with a stake in the property tax debate.

All of which could be useful down the road if he seeks statewide office.

"He's the most pro-taxpayer legislative leader in the country," said Grover Norquist, a national conservative figure, adding that Rubio's moves have created a buzz among think tanks in Washington.

"There is something helpful about staking out a clear, radical position," Norquist said of Rubio's tax swap. "It moved the debate in a healthy way. And in politics you don't ever want to get everything you asked for. You want to put the target out further than you can reach in one year. He can come back next year and say, 'Here's Step 2 and Step 3.' "

Rubio said the campaignlike approach is adopted from the tour he and other Republicans took in forming the book 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida. So-called Idea Raisers were held across the state to gather suggestions from citizens about what policies to pursue.

(Critics say the ideas that actually made it into the book -- including No. 96, the tax swap -- were nothing more than a Republican agenda in a populist wrapper.)

"I enjoy advocacy. I enjoy going out and talking with people. I enjoy selling ideas," Rubio said Wednesday evening on his way home to Miami after TV interviews in Orlando.

Rubio's aspirations could be damaged in the same way. From his powerful position he has accused local government of excessive waste. He has softened that language recently. The proposal for a rollback and cap of local government tax revenue now allows officials to opt out through supermajority vote.

"If he runs for statewide office he will both have benefited from what he has done and been hurt by what he has done," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach.

Rubio acknowledges he plans to stay in politics but said he is not sure what he will do. Term limits will force him from the House in November 2008, and there is no apparent statewide race. In the outside chance that Crist is tapped as a vice presidential running mate, Rubio would seem a natural candidate to replace him.

Running for office while serving as speaker once would have been against the law. But lawmakers changed that this year after approving a sweeping elections bill that was pushed by none other than Marco Rubio.

[Last modified June 9, 2007, 22:43:23]


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