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Florida budget commission delays vote on tax cap

Hilda Patterson, 74, of Spring Hill, speaks to the Tax and Budget Reform Commission in Tallahassee on Friday.

ALEX LEARY | Times

Hilda Patterson, 74, of Spring Hill, speaks to the Tax and Budget Reform Commission in Tallahassee on Friday.

TALLAHASSEE — Hilda Patterson was exhausted — literally shaking — late Friday afternoon after sitting through seven hours of discussion.

The bus was leaving for Spring Hill and Patterson, 74, had not gotten a chance to talk. "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," she barked at Allan Bense, chairman of the state Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

The moment captured the tension and disorder that pulsed through what was supposed to be the final significant meeting of the powerful citizen panel.

Bense apologized. And Patterson did get to speak in favor of a controversial plan to cap government revenue. But Bense's own frustration came through during a recess.

"These volunteer jobs are wonderful, aren't they?" he said, forcing a smile.

Commissioners showed up Friday expecting to take a vote on the last major proposal for reforming the state's property tax system: to ask voters if they want to put strict caps on how much money state and local governments can raise in a given year.

Instead, they narrowly and surprisingly rejected a plan to expand school vouchers. Then they turned their attention to the revenue cap, whose sponsor had stripped it bare in an attempt to save it. That led to a free-for-all of late amendments that either strengthened or weaken the main proposal.

So amid the confusion, Bense called a timeout.

He scheduled another meeting for April 14 as angry citizens stood outside the meeting holding signs while local government lobbyists paced nervously.

This was not supposed to happen. The powerful tax commission is supposed to be the sober, deliberative leaders who put well-meaning state constitutional amendments on the November ballot.

But Friday's 10-hour meeting showed how complicated the government process can be, with a dizzying array of proposals as diverse as school vouchers (which, in a surprise twist, failed) and a revenue cap (which was debated for hours but not voted on).

Confusion and jockeying over the cap — including behind-the-scenes lobbying by former Gov. Jeb Bush — made clear that the issue needed more work before a vote.

"Government can be messy, but we're playing around with the Constitution here," said commission member Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte of Tallahassee, who voted against vouchers. He credited Bense's "fair leadership" but said the work was being rushed and tainted by partisan politics.

"We're slapping paper on the desk without thinking it through. If you watch this process you can't be happy where we're at."

The 25-member tax committee was appointed by the governor and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

It is formed every 20 years to recommend constitutional amendments to the public, bypassing the Legislature. But this commission is under enormous pressure given widespread disappointment in previous, recent attempts to cut property taxes.

Bense, a former Florida House speaker, said the frantic atmosphere was no different than the final days of a legislative session when everything starts to move at hyperspeed.

And Bense said the politics come with the terrain. "Look, it's a powerful committee, and you're going to get lobbied. We're going to get lobbied by lobbyists and lobbied by the working man and working woman like we have been today."

He noted that the panel and its subcommittees have met well more than 100 times in the past year and the issues have been thoroughly debated. Though it largely resembles a small legislature, the commission differs in one way: Members cannot talk to each other outside meetings.

That makes amending proposals such as the revenue cap seem more chaotic. There were 19 amendments alone on the revenue cap.

"If I had the power of the speaker or a Senate president, three days ago I would have said, 'Look, you guys go get in a room and work it out,' " Bense said.

But Bense's panel still came under criticism in recent weeks for taking up issues linked to court decisions banning private school vouchers.

Last week, the commission passed a proposal for the ballot that, if approved by voters in November, will eliminate a state restriction on aid to religious-based organizations — the restriction prompted an appellate court to strike down former Gov. Bush's controversial Opportunity Scholarship program.

Then on Friday, the commission considered another ballot question to address the reason the Florida Supreme Court used to also strike down the Bush program: that the state Constitution calls for a uniform system of free public schools.

But the measure only got 16 votes — one vote shy of what is needed — after some proponents of last week's plan said they were uncomfortable with the change.

"At the end of the day, you have to go with what your gut and your god tells you," said commissioner Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg. "I think our charge is not to overhaul policies, to overhaul systems of government. Our charge is to deal with tax and budget."

Florida budget commission delays vote on tax cap 04/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 12:12pm]
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