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    Senate president pushes tax reform

    ©Associated Press

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001

    ORLANDO -- Senate President John McKay wants to revamp what he calls Florida's antiquated tax structure, an appealing move to most Floridians.

    But part of his platform includes an unpopular idea: reinstating a service tax on professionals such as lawyers and accountants.

    Florida's tax structure -- a hodgepodge thrown together in large part to cope with financial emergencies -- is in need of repair, McKay said.

    The Bradenton Republican said he plans to gear up this summer to get businesses, special interests and the public to agree that the time is right to reform the system.

    "My plan is to build enough momentum that it will take on a life of its own," McKay told the Orlando Sentinel.

    If McKay can persuade the House and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush to get on board, he predicts Floridians can see the elimination of dozens of exemptions to the state's sales tax and even reductions in sales and property taxes.

    McKay also wants to steer the reform into unpopular territory by making some services, such as those provided by lawyers and accountants, subject to the state's 6 percent sales tax.

    It's been tried before -- by Gov. Bob Martinez in 1987 and Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1992. The outcry from special interests killed the efforts and arguably ended Martinez's political career as well.

    For now, McKay wants to limit debate to the structure of the state's tax system and worry later about whether the money generated by the system is enough to meet state needs.

    Bush said he'll listen but remains cautious.

    House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, a hard-core proponent of tax cuts, said he'll support any plan that would "return tax dollars to taxpayers."

    The concern of McKay and Senate appropriations chairman, Sen. Jim Horne, is that the current state sales tax is subject to a downturn in the economy.

    Services remain largely untaxed in Florida, and there are more than 300 sales tax exemptions in state law, more than double what there were in the 1970s as a result of intense lobbying by special interests.

    The exemptions add up to an estimated $20-billion annual state revenue loss -- far exceeding the $14-billion expected to be collected this year.

    The exemptions -- once limited to groceries, farm commodities, fuels and a few other items -- now include such things as race horse and dairy cow feed, Super Bowl and World Cup soccer game tickets and bottled water.

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