TALLAHASSEE — As Florida lawmakers inch closer to the conclusion that the only way out of this year's fiscal crisis is to raise new revenues, their polls show that many of their constituents aren't ready to support more taxes or fees.
So how do you get a Republican-led Legislature to embrace ideas such as eliminating sales tax exemptions, raising tobacco taxes and imposing new fees? You offer some sweeteners — a bevy of bills to streamline regulations, dismantle or merge agencies, and send the politically appealing message that they're serious about scaling back government.
Many of these proposals emerged in previous years but are on the fast track this year because the financial crunch offers "opportunity in a crisis," said Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican, who has sponsored several growth management and environmental regulation streamlining bills.
He calls such proposals crucial cogs in the process of giving legislators the courage to cast tough votes.
"It's essential because we've got to find a way that people politically can say, 'You know what? I'll take the heat back home in my next campaign for doing this,' " said Bennett.
He is supporting the $1 a pack increase on tobacco products to offset the cost of treating sick smokers on Medicaid, but he realizes it could make him vulnerable if he were to run again in a Republican primary.
"I can see the flier: 'He voted to raise your taxes $700 million,' " Bennett said. "They don't say cigarette tax. They don't say it's going to health care. So, until you find yourself in a desperate situation, people are not going to have that political courage. For me, it's the right thing to do."
Sen. Don Gaetz heads the Senate committee charged with recommending ways to stimulate Florida's economy. He has concluded that the answer to the budget crisis is a bipartisan embrace of both new taxes and spending cuts and an array of new tax incentives designed to reward businesses that bring jobs to Florida.
"Both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans have to be able to take from the deal a story that makes sense to their base," said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican.
He said his committee will soon unveil a proposal that tells Floridians "if you make the investment and you create a business or expand a business, if you add jobs and the cash register rings, then we'll provide you with a tax break or a tax rebate — after you've created the economic development."
But building political cover is only part of the equation this session. Facing the numbers is the other.
Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander told the Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting Tuesday that as the state's grim revenue forecast comes more clearly into focus, "We'll ultimately have to have a mix of revenues and some reductions.
"We're planning on using all the (federal) stimulus dollars that we can use," he said. "That brings us to just over a $3 billion projected shortfall between our revenues and our must-fund expenditure levels. And, by the way, those don't have any fluff in those must-fund levels."
If the state were to accept Gov. Charlie Crist's budget, agree to a Seminole gaming compact and nearly $500 million in new fees, he said, the deficit would still hover around $2.5 billion. That would force a 17 percent reduction in every agency, he said.
"It's hard to imagine that any of us — even the most conservative of us — would want to do that," he said.
House leaders say they're still focusing on reducing spending.
"Before we ask for another dollar of new taxes and ask the people of Florida and businesses to pay more, we have to find more ways to reduce spending … and present a plan to get Florida's economy going again," said House Republican Leader Adam Hasner of Delray Beach. Hasner said the House won't have the plan ready for another two weeks.
Meanwhile, more than 10 bills are under consideration to either abolish or transfer growth management programs, eliminate impact fees, abolish state oversight, change concurrency requirements and expedite permitting. Another bill would protect the tobacco industry from having to post a bond to file an appeal in class action lawsuits.
Environmentalists argue that the streamlining and regulation cutbacks are being pushed this year under the guise of stimulating the economy.
"This issue isn't about streamlining for the sake of streamlining," Hasner said. ''We want Florida's economy to recover, and we believe that to do that we need to keep the tax burden as low as possible."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.