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Tax policy calls for Pinellas Tea Party

It's just past midnight Feb. 1. The well-traveled Malibu screeches to a halt in the tow- away zone at The Pier. A mysterious figure slides out and, to the startled rustling of the just-awakened pelicans, rushes to the water's edge. He reaches into his pocket and throws seven packets into Tampa Bay. Tea bags. Daydream or nightmare, the increase of the sales tax to 7 cents should be marked by some form of protest. Two hundred years ago, our patriotic ancestors used tea in the harbor to show the government (and their fellow citizens) that a tax was unfair.

As is the sales tax. Everyone should know that the sales tax is regressive, is not deductible on federal income tax and taxes a shrinking portion of disposable income. Simply put, it is a poor tax to finance Florida's needs.

This bad tax got worse Feb. 1 when it became a revenue source for the desperate needs of Pinellas County and local government. Like the slim majority of Pinellas citizens who voted, I voted for the tax, a vote recognizing Pinellas' needs, not an endorsement of this tax.

When the sales tax was imposed on rural Florida nearly a half century ago, it was almost a luxury tax.

Such necessities of life as food, medicine, horse feed, utilities and the American flag were exempt. Those exemptions remain today. Also exempted were "personal services," such as haircuts, laundry and attorney fees. In intervening years, the percentage of income spent on taxable goods has declined in relation to the spending on exempt items.

This "shift," coupled with the accelerating needs of a growing state, has caused the tax rate to grow disproportionately to the growth of the state. The tax started at 3 percent in 1949 and grew to 4 percent in 1968, to 5 percent in 1982, to 6 percent in 1988 and, in Pinellas, to 7 percent in 1990.

Already, legislators are openly discussing raising it another percent after the upcoming elections. Pinellas County levies an additional 2 percent on restaurant meals and motel rooms as a "tourist tax."

Florida does not have a sane tax policy. A tax adviser to a French king (probably a Louis permanently separated from his head) said, "The art of taxation is to so pluck the goose to get the maximum feathers with the least amount of squawking." The incremental sales tax achieves this.

What Floridians fail to realize is that each time the tax goes up a penny, the price of the product goes up a percent and purchasing falls accordingly. A person buying a car for $10,000, which now costs $10,100, will either delay the purchase or buy a less expensive car.

Lawmakers can raise the rate only in hopes that enough people won't pay attention - a hope usually fulfilled.

There are two fair ways to tax: income and outgo. If you choose not to tax income, as Florida and five other "bellwether" states (Nevada, South Dakota, Washington, Wyoming and Texas) have done, you must tax most spending and not exempt as much as Florida does.

In 1987, the Legislature tried to close many of the loopholes and

exemptions in Florida's sales tax. The firestorm of controversy turned this model legislation to cinders in just six months and caused the weakened, battered sales tax to go up another penny two months later.

This discussion might be academic if Florida's quality of life were not deteriorating at such a rapid pace. We are "number one" in areas ranging from prison population to dropout rate.

Our road system is deplorable, and we have a level of human-services spending approaching that of Bangladesh. What will we do?

We can raise property taxes, as we have done repeatedly in the past few years; we can expand our legalized gambling from puppies and the lottery to casinos; we can, in short, find another way to extract the feathers without the squawking. That is why I wanted to throw my seven tea bags off The Pier. Sooner or later, we will wake up and realize there are so many Band-Aids on Florida's fiscal policy that the patient is no longer identifiable.

My plea is for the ability to pay for the services we need and desire through a reliable, equitable and tax-deductible method. To paraphrase my revolutionary ancestors, I know not what course others might take, but, as for me, give me a personal income tax.

Jade Moore has been executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association since 1974. He is a registered lobbyist and has created or managed a number of political action committees.

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