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Tax cut rebels tear up session's script
By TIM NICKENS
Published October 18, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - If all had gone according to plan, Wednesday would have been the day Gov. Charlie Crist and state legislators congratulated themselves on the approval of a new plan to cut property taxes.
All did not go according to plan.
The House did not take a vote and recessed for most of the day. Negotiations moved into the back rooms because the script had not been followed. Out of the blue Tuesday, a Republican-controlled committee had blown up the plan by adding a 3 percent cap on increases in assessments to nonhomesteaded property. For good measure, they also cut school property taxes in half and paid for it by raising the sales tax by 1 cent.
That emboldened conservatives in the Senate, where President Ken Pruitt encountered a minor mutiny. The Port St. Lucie Republican said first thing Wednesday morning that what the House committee did would not be considered by the Senate because it was outside the scope of the narrow agenda for the special session. Republican Sens. Mike Bennett of Bradenton, Victor Crist of Tampa and Ronda Storms of Valrico were among those who publicly challenged the decision and wanted the cap on nonhomesteaded assessments.
Ultimately, a frustrated Pruitt was forced to allow that amendment to be heard - and declared it defeated on what sounded like an evenly split voice vote. After all, a 3 percent cap on nonhomesteaded assessments would cost local governments billions of dollars in lost property taxes.
House Speaker Marco Rubio watched the Senate on television from his office Wednesday afternoon and could not help smiling. The nature of the debate had changed to his advantage.
Rubio wants to be the tax-cut king. The Miami Republican wants to slash property taxes, and he shows little concern about the consequences. If he had his way, he would eliminate all property taxes on homesteads. Against all generally accepted economic theory, he insists the sales tax is not regressive. He believes in taxing consumption, not wealth. For most Floridians, that's not a good thing.
"I believe in big ideas," Rubio said in an interview. "The day I'm not like that anymore is the day I should not be in politics."
He wouldn't say it this way, but he wasn't in love with the tax-cut package he agreed on with Crist and Pruitt. For one thing, it wasn't nearly big enough to suit him. For another, doubling the homestead exemption and allowing homeowners to take their Save Our Homes tax break with them when they move were the governor's simplistic campaign pledges. And despite all the happy talk in the Capitol, Rubio is not the governor's biggest fan. He has taken different positions than Crist on such issues as tax cuts, global warming and gambling. He won't acknowledge it, but Rubio has strategically positioned himself to the right of a populist Republican governor whose sky-high poll numbers haven't stopped grumbling among conservatives.
"I've been a little bit surprised at the aggressiveness of the speaker toward the governor," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who has seen governors and speakers come and go.
When the House committee abruptly started adding more tax cuts to the package Tuesday, that worked to Rubio's advantage. He insisted he wasn't behind it, but the circumstances look suspicious. Republicans urged Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, to run an amendment to cap assessment increases on nonhomesteads. Saunders, a veteran who knows how the game is played and is a bit of a free agent, proposed a 7 percent cap against the wishes of Democratic Leader Dan Gelber. Republicans raised the bidding to a 3 percent cap, and Democrats went along even though no one had a clue how much it would cost.
At first blush, all of this looked like insider high jinks that could easily be corrected. It actually derailed the tax cut train and shifted the debate in Rubio's direction. It offered something bolder (and more irresponsible) that many legislators feeling the heat back home will find difficult to resist. And it will make it harder for Crist and Pruitt to keep the tax cut debate within reasonable boundaries.
Pruitt struggled mightily to do that Wednesday, with Democrats already unhappy about the amendment's impact on schools and Republicans complaining the tax cuts aren't enough. Only a last-minute plea by Pruitt prevented the Democrats from taking a caucus position against the amendment and killing it.
"You have the two extremes - it's not enough and it's too much," Pruitt said after the amendment passed. "What I've found in life is somewhere in the middle is where you usually end up."
But don't look for Rubio to stop pushing for more cuts.
"You come out with bold ideas and you force people to think," he said.
Unfortunately, special legislative sessions are not conducive to thoughtful consideration of complicated tax policy. The self-imposed deadline to do something - anything - by the end of this month so an amendment can make the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot has heightened a crisis atmosphere.
From a public policy standpoint, the best outcome now would be for the Legislature to deadlock and turn things over to the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. The commission is methodically studying taxation and can put well-researched amendments on the November 2008 ballot. Politically, that's not a viable option for legislators who don't feel they can go back home without doing something dramatic - no matter what the long-term cost.