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Did tax panelists' airport chat break rules?

Former state Sen. Les Miller said he debated sweeping tax changes with fellow panel member Nancy Riley while waiting for a plane.

Former state Sen. Les Miller said he debated sweeping tax changes with fellow panel member Nancy Riley while waiting for a plane.

TALLAHASSEE — Former state Sen. Les Miller of Tampa told his colleagues on a powerful tax panel Monday that he and another panel member had chatted recently about tax reform in an airport.

Miller's admission of the conversation in a public meeting has raised a serious question: Did he and colleague Nancy Riley of Clearwater violate Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law?

Both are members of the Florida Tax and Budget Reform Commission. When the panel reconvened last year, it agreed to comply with the law that forbids private discussion of business, just as it is forbidden among city or county officials. An intentional violation is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, and an unintentional violation is punishable by up to a $500 fine.

On Monday, the commission made its biggest decision to date, agreeing to ask voters in November to swap $8-billion in annual school property taxes for a higher sales tax and other changes that may include eliminating sales tax exemptions.

Miller, a leading proponent of the tax trade, gave a speech in which he claimed to have persuaded Riley, once an opponent, to change her mind and vote yes.

"Her and I had a debate about this in an airport long and hard one day, waiting on a plane that was three hours late, and she's changed her mind," said Miller, a Democrat.

Minutes later, Riley, a Republican, said: "I did not change my mind. After three-and-a-half hours of talking, he saw the light and he changed the proposal."

On Tuesday, the commission chairman's legal adviser, Dudley Goodlette, said the conversation as both members described it was "gratuitous," and sounded innocent, but "it was inappropriate and shouldn't have occurred. & I was chagrined to hear it, but it is what it is."

Both commissioners offered different versions of their airport conversation from what they said a day earlier.

"There was no intent to violate the Sunshine Law," Miller said. "We were together three-and-a-half hours and that discussion took 15 seconds." He said they talked about his job at the University of South Florida, USF sports and traveling.

"I am very sorry people thought Nancy Riley and I had a conversation about commission business," Miller said. "But are we supposed to sit there like mummies and not say anything to each other?"

Riley said Tuesday, "I can't say for sure that we didn't talk about taxes, but not only there was no lobbying — isn't that what the Sunshine Law is?" Riley said. "We were talking about property taxes but not the merits of a bill."

At a workshop in August, the commission's counsel, Tom Cibula, told members how the Sunshine Law limits member-to-member communication, even by e-mail. Minutes of that meeting show that commission chairman Allan Bense urged members "to err on the side of caution."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Did tax panelists' airport chat break rules? 03/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 5:22pm]
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