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Trying to cut its way out of crisis

House Republicans face a billion-dollar challenge: addressing a severe budget shortfall without raising taxes.

Even some veteran antitax hawks in the Senate acknowledge something needs to give in light of the $5 billion or more hole. They are seriously looking at a higher cigarette tax and removing sales tax exemptions.

But the House has drawn a hard line: Cut the budget until it balances.

"People of Florida right now can't afford tax increases," said Rep. Adam Hasner, a Republican leader from Delray Beach.

"The average citizen is going to say, 'Don't take money from me, go find it in the budget,' " said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. "I don't care if it's a cigarette tax or a liquor tax, it's still a tax."

Anything can change in the fast-moving 60-day session. And the $4.7 billion in federal stimulus money Gov. Charlie Crist wants to use could alleviate some pressure (which would be ironic given how many Republican lawmakers have scoffed at the "bailout" package). Top senators think that only avoids an inevitable need for more money.

The House GOP posture is nothing new. The lockstep aversion to taxes is a guiding force and often becomes a rallying cry during November elections.

Going against the grain could be a political risk, particularly when constituents are losing jobs and investment portfolios are vanishing.

So what to do? Cut, cut and cut some more. It is likely there will be a move in the House to consolidate some state agencies and to eliminate duplication.

Bogdanoff, who heads the Finance and Tax Council, has a lofty goal of trying to trim $1 billion through policy changes and efficiencies. She said $200 million could be saved by folding some duties of the clerks of court into what court administrators do and forcing more oversight of the clerks' budgets.

Another idea proposed by the Department of Motor Vehicles: issue new license plates every 10 years instead of six. It could save $15 million.

"The easy political answer is to go ahead and raise revenue," Bogdanoff said. "We've got to do the tough thing. Whether we can totally find it, I don't know."

There are signs of House Republicans veering from the script. Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, has filed a bill that would increase the per pack cigarette tax to $1, an increase of 65.1 cents. Zapata said it could raise $471 million a year.

"The situation calls for action," said Zapata, who heads the Human Services Appropriations Committee. "We can sit here and try to hold true to our principles but at the same time we need to be pragmatic."

It won't all be about taxes in 2009.

Rep. Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, may have become speaker amid Rep. Ray Sansom's trouble over taking a job at his hometown college, but the two share an overarching vision for the session: tackling an "overly demanding regulatory system."

Ideas include suspending impact fees local governments charge developers to help pay for roads, schools and sewers and reducing the number of agencies that have a say on development permits.

Property taxes, which have gotten most of the attention in the past few legislative sessions, will also get some play. One plan would correct a "recapture" provision of the Save Our Homes amendment that allows tax assessments to increase even when market values decline.

Trying to cut its way out of crisis 02/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 12:44pm]
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