It would be one thing if state lawmakers were preparing for a dramatic showdown over the details of real tax reform, such as closing sales tax exemptions or overhauling a terribly unfair property tax system. But no. The best this Legislature apparently can do is fight over raising a tobacco tax that is one of the nation's lowest and has not been increased in nearly 20 years. So much for profiles in courage and responding to an economic crisis with the ambition the situation demands.
Wearing the white hat, at least for the moment, is the state Senate. The Senate wants to increase the tobacco tax by a $1 a pack and put the money into Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor. It would have been more commendable if Senate leaders had used the tax increase to actually bolster health care programs instead of then transferring $800 million in general revenue from health and human services to help fill other budget holes. There is a whiff of bait-and-switch here, but in the current Tallahassee environment this passes for statesmanship.
Wearing the black hat, of course, is the state House. The Republican leadership there has adopted the narrow-minded strategy of their congressional colleagues in Washington: Say no to everything and offer no viable vision of their own. They aren't just against tax reform. They oppose raising tobacco taxes and would rather spout antitax rhetoric than meet Florida's needs. That head-in-the-sand position is best reflected by Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale, the chair of the Finance and Tax Council.
"We're not moving on it,'' she said, ''unless somebody's twisting my arm, and nobody's twisting my arm. Not interested. It's not a top priority for our chamber. That goes to show the polarization with the Senate."
Actually, it goes to show the callousness and lack of vision of the out-of-touch House leadership. Bogdanoff is the same lawmaker who earlier argued that raising tobacco taxes would mean convenience stores would sell not only fewer cigarettes but fewer sodas and bags of chips. It's hard to tell whether her focus on tobacco and junk food is her strategy for economic recovery or her attempt to lower health care costs by making it is as easy as possible for smokers to die earlier.
Raising the tobacco tax ought to be one of the Legislature's easiest decisions given the real tax reform work that needs to be done and the $6 billion budget deficit. And there is a familiar strategy for breaking such a legislative deadlock: The governor could endorse the tobacco tax and join the Senate to apply public pressure to the House to do the right thing. Yet Gov. Charlie Crist says he's not "warm, cold or indifferent.'' He is needlessly concerned about the tax's impact on the cigar industry. In typical fashion he avoids the white hat or the black hat. He prefers the safer color of gray.
Hope springs eternal. As Floridians get a better sense of the inadequate budget proposals and the damage that will be done to education, social services and health care, perhaps the governor and the Legislature will see the light. There are still three weeks left in the legislative session — plenty of time to close some sales tax exemptions, broaden the base to tax some services and make it easier to collect taxes on Internet sales. But if it takes this much effort to raise the tobacco tax to pay for health care for the poor, the chance to turn a crisis into an opportunity is going up in smoke.