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Florida legislators are driven by a fear of taxes

It's the ultimate taboo in Tallahassee. The T-word. Taxes.

Gov. Charlie Crist and his fellow Republican lawmakers would rather discuss just about anything else. A mind-set grips the Capitol that cutting spending is the only way to manage an epic downturn in revenue, "no matter the consequences," as one veteran lobbyist put it this week.

Budgets headed to the House and Senate floor next week reflect a $5-billion drop in spending from this year to next. That means less money for school students, foster children, pregnant women, newborn infants, kids with AIDS, frail seniors and hospice patients.

But budget knife-wielding Republicans view themselves as the embodiment of fiscal responsibility.

"We haven't hit a panic button to raise taxes," said Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin, chairman of the House Policy and Budget Council. "We have said that if the people of Florida and their businesses are being reduced, then government should be reduced."

These legislators are cutting the size of government. They are not cutting the demands on government. Almost anybody will tell you that as economic conditions deteriorate, the demand for government help goes up, not down.

Crist's chief child advocate, Jim Kallinger, says child abuse complaints are increasing. At a Children's Week event Wednesday, Kallinger made the link between child abuse and factors such as poor health, one-parent families, joblessness and domestic violence.

The Legislature's response: Wipe out jobs of child abuse investigators. Reduce the amounts the state pays to sheriffs in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and four other counties to investigate abuse. Reduce by 205 the number of front-line workers who help struggling families qualify for food stamps and cash assistance.

Isn't it possible that these cuts will make things a lot worse?

Democrats say yes, that Republicans have substituted a "live within our means" mantra for true economic principles. "In hard economic times, the worst thing you can do is lay people off and take money out of the economy," said Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader.

Here's an idea, whispered to me by a veteran Republican lawmaker unwilling to have his name attached to the taboo of a tax.

The state could ask voters in November to raise the sales tax by 1-cent statewide for a year, with the money, about $3.2 billion, earmarked for schools, health care and public safety.

Of course, it might not pass, but it would be valuable to test public sentiment on taxes. Do most Floridians share the legislative leadership's view that deep budget cuts are preferable to raising more money?

Crist hates taxes, but he generally approves of policy-by-referendum.

"The people approving it is the most attractive part of what you've laid out," Crist said. "But I don't support that overall notion. What I prefer is the utilization of reserves in an appropriate fashion."

Another idea: raise the cigarette tax $1 a pack to $1.34, producing about $1-billion a year. Two bills (HB 299 and SB 2790) by Rep. Jim Waldman of Coconut Creek and Sen. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, haven't received as much as a perfunctory hearing. That would require a public discussion of the T-word, but it's probably moot: Crist opposes that tax, too.

Florida legislators are driven by a fear of taxes 04/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 8:45am]
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