If the 2007-08 Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission has any hope of salvaging its legacy, it will resist efforts this week to flip-flop in the face of high-stakes lobbying and unseemly horse trading. Commissioners are being pressured to reverse their decisions on constitutional amendments involving a historic tax swap and school vouchers, and doing so would only make them look all the more political.
The tax swap has taken a particularly nasty turn since commissioners voted last month, 21-4, to put it on the November ballot. At the time, the majority rebuked business lobbyists who called it a tax increase. The plan would eliminate the state-required portion of school property taxes, reducing most property tax bills by roughly 25 percent. Those school property taxes would be replaced by an extra penny of sales tax and the removal of unspecified sales tax exemptions.
The swap is far from perfect. A sales tax rate increase tends to disadvantage poor people, and the swap leaves some critical details to a Legislature that has been wholly uncooperative. But that's not why business lobbyists have gone to war. They are afraid the swap might end some of their clients' coveted tax exemptions, including some that exempt professional services. To the extent that's true, the removal of those exemptions is actually the best part of the deal.
As the commission prepares for its final meetings on Thursday and Friday, one commissioner already has announced he is switching his vote and the elbows are flying. Sen. Mike Haridopolos, in line to become Senate president in 2010, held a hearing last week to denounce the vote, calling it the "largest tax increase in state history." How is it that a tax swap can be called a tax increase?
Haridopolos, though, can at least claim consistency. House Speaker Marco Rubio, on the other hand, personally lobbied commissioners to support the swap and publicly called them "our last hope" for "meaningful tax reform." Yet on Monday, he told reporters the tax swap is "a potential recipe for disaster." A disaster for any future political campaign donations?
The second potential flip-flop comes on an issue that doesn't even belong in front of the commission. Patricia Levesque, who runs the education foundation dedicated to preserving the education legacy of Gov. Jeb Bush, has used her commission position to try to put school vouchers on the November ballot.
The commission voted to put one voucher question on the ballot, but rejected the other. Then, in an odd move at its last meeting, commissioner and Florida Retail Federation executive Randy Miller asked to reconsider the failed voucher vote. After his request, the commission passed his Internet sales tax amendment by one vote. His changed vote on vouchers represents the swing vote.
The Taxation and Budget Commission was not created to dabble in school vouchers, and the means by which the commission is being asked to reconsider its previous voucher vote are underhanded. It deserves no new consideration.
The commission was created by a constitutional amendment intended to insulate its work from legislative politics. So far, its tactics haven't seemed all that different.