TALLAHASSEE — It's the read-my-lips moment that some Florida lawmakers dread: having to break a pledge not to raise taxes.
A state budget $3 billion in the hole has the Legislature considering raising the cigarette tax, the biggest single levy to gain serious momentum in the Capitol in nearly 20 years.
Dozens of fees are being jacked up or created. Corporate income tax breaks are being reviewed. Some sales tax exemptions may be closed.
This has caused palpable anxiety in Tallahassee, where the Republican majority is about to reverse position on a founding principle against higher taxes.
But the pain is most acute for those Republicans who put it in writing.
"I don't want to think about it until I have to think about it," Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami said with a sigh.
Politicians nationwide have long committed their antitax rhetoric to paper by signing Grover Norquist's pledge: "I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes."
A campaign gimmick, perhaps, but the Taxpayer Protection Pledge is sacred among those who take it and is a link to the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who encouraged Norquist to form Americans for Tax Reform.
In Florida, the Norquist pledge has been a nonissue until now because Republicans have ruled in mostly robust economic times. The boom has become a bust and now the pledge looms in the background, a tiger in hiding.
Not every Republican in Tallahassee signed the pledge, only about 30 of the 102 in the Legislature. (One Democrat did, too.) But the list of signers includes some of the biggest names around the capital: Senate President Jeff Atwater, House Speaker Larry Cretul, Gov. Charlie Crist.
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No one has been more artful in avoiding the question than Crist. He's quick to say he's not "warm and fuzzy" on taxes, or he'll say the "T-word," as if it's an obscenity.
Call it a user fee, however, and Crist warms up.
"I think we all understand that the facts have changed dramatically," Crist said. "We are in the largest, deepest economic challenge since the Great Depression, and we have to deal with reality. I mean, that's just how it is."
Norquist said calling something a user fee or a "surcharge," as the state Senate has deemed the cigarette levy, "doesn't pass the laugh test."
"It's a tax," he said.
He agrees some fees are okay, when people are paying for an optional service. But those designed to simply raise revenue are taxes in disguise, he said.
The wordplay over taxes and fees annoys some taxpayers. "There is absolutely no difference between imposing a user fee or raising taxes," Rick Furr of Tierra Verde in Pinellas County wrote in a recent e-mail to Crist. "Please don't insult the intelligence of Florida taxpayers."
The Harvard-educated Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform at the request of President Reagan, and his skillful use of the pledge has made him a high priest in conservative circles.
"My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub," he is fond of saying.
"The pledge isn't to me; it's to the people of Florida," Norquist insists. "They are the ones politicians have to look in the eye and say, 'I kept my promise' or 'I didn't.' "
Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican and pledge signer, insists that he can keep the promise and support the cigarette tax. It is smokers, Republicans say, who are driving up Medicaid costs.
"No one is forced to smoke," Fasano said. "But if you choose to do that, you need to pay the fee so that if you get sick, we're going to take care of you."
Americans for Tax Reform has gone after what it calls "weak-kneed" politicians who increase taxes, and has insisted voters take notice.
It played a role in Bill Clinton's presidential win in 1992 after President George H.W. Bush doubled back on his famous "Read my lips: No new taxes." (A son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, an avowed tax foe, never signed the pledge.)
Democrats smell opportunity, too, even though they generally support the tax increases. "Whether someone can keep their word is an issue," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West.
Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, is feeling the pain. He is so worried about running afoul of the pledge that he recently called Norquist to ask if billions in property tax cuts enacted in the past two years would offset tax increases this year.
"What credit, in essence," Haridopolos wants to know, "do you get for lowering taxes?"
None. Any increases would have to be offset by tax cuts in the same legislation, Norquist said.
"I'm still struggling with the issue," Haridopolos said.
Atwater, who may aspire to higher office, appears less concerned. "He can see it as he likes," the North Palm Beach Republican said of Norquist's position on cigarette taxes. "In the absence of (a tobacco tax) increase, I'm taxing everyone else in Florida to pay for the choice that few are making."
He said he does not regret signing the pledge but quickly added: "Everyone should be careful in trying to predict down the road."
Many Republicans didn't sign the pledge even though they oppose new taxes.
"I grew up in the era of George Bush Sr., and I remember his no-new-tax pledge," said Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey. "I've made a conscious effort not to sign things that I can't predict in the future."
Many of those who signed the pledge are wishing they hadn't, wriggling under the economic realities that no one saw coming. A little understanding of that would be nice, one lawmaker said.
"Tell Grover Norquist to find us $2 billion and then I'll worry about his freaking pledge."
But that, he said, was not for attribution.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.