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Chiles: I'll take the heat

No classroom of churlish eighth-graders ever got a worse bawling out than Senate President Gwen Margolis gave the other day to the prosperous and powerful members of the Florida Tax and Budget Reform Commission. Insisting that the Legislature had complied with most of the commission's budget reform agenda, she demanded that they stop using it as an "excuse" to avoid coming to grips with taxes.

"Now is the time to get down to the business that you were appointed to do," she said. "That's to look at the tax structure of Florida. . . . The summer is here, I don't think the commission has come up with one suggestion yet as far as dealing with taxes."

Since the stated purpose of Tuesday's meeting was precisely that _ to begin looking at taxes _ Margolis' peevishness was untimely and unhelpful. What had she expected from the commission in its first year of existence? A miracle?

Her anger owes to the fact that since there was no quick fix this year, the state's money shortage will have to be confronted in 1992, a reapportionment year in which all 160 lawmakers will be on the ballot. Legislators who would blame that on the Tax Reform Commission should ask themselves why they didn't take matters into their own hands this year. It was obvious the commission wasn't in any hurry.

It brings to mind some good advice the Legislature apparently chose to overlook: "If you want something done right, do it yourself." Tax study commissions can do useful research and they can provide credibility for tax bills that legislators ultimately pass, but they can't do it in a hurry or under pressure. And they can't do it in place of the Legislature, even if they have nominal power to propose their own constitutional amendments. It was silly, in any case, to expect too much out of a panel as establishment-oriented as this commission was guaranteed to be. One of the most talented members, former House speaker Lee Moffitt of Tampa, already has resigned on the grounds that he didn't have the time necessary "to provide meaningful input." Translation: He thought he was wasting his time. As Gov. Lawton Chiles put it the other day, "I'm not worried about them acting too boldly."

But if others have given up on the commission, Chiles himself has not. He spoke to the commission Tuesday as if he actually expects some good from it. Politely echoing Margolis' theme that budget reform is yesterday's issue, Chiles went on say that "in the final analysis, this commission will be judged _ as we will _ on how it handled the significant revenue questions facing our state."

He left the members breathless, but flattered, by presenting 10 demanding deadlines for progress reports and decision points that would help him lay tax reform proposals before the 1992 Legislature.

The most significant thing he did was to caution the members to concentrate on reforming taxes and let him worry about raising them. He told them to design the best possible tax system without regard for how much more money, if any, the state might need.

"I'm trying to take the onus for higher taxes off their backs," Chiles explained.

There is a lot more wrong with the Florida tax structure than with the commonly observed fact that it never yields enough money. As the Chamber of Commerce Foundation has contended in its widely quoted study, Crossroads, the Florida tax structure is also unfair to the poor. It is wildly unpredictable when the economy is in flux, as now. It is biased in favor of some industries and against others, and against investment generally. It doesn't allow Floridians to claim their fair share of federal income tax deductions. It doesn't grow with the economy and the prohibition on taxing personal income tips it too heavily against corporations and consumers.

Says the Chamber's Tom Keating, "It is possible to have a good luncheon speech and talk taxes."

But when governors and business leaders say "tax reform," the public hears "tax increases," and political spines turn to jelly. If Chiles can get this tax reform commission to ignore the political consequences, it would be the first time that comprehensive tax reform had ever been approached objectively. Virtually every tax increase in Florida's history _ except Gov. Reubin Askew's corporate income tax of 1971 _ has resulted not from careful thought but from an immediate, desperate need for more money. That explains why the results have been so bad.

There is not going to be a quick fix next year either. Chiles sounds determined to attempt some tax reforms, but nobody thinks an income tax or a fair substitute for the homestead exemption could be passed that soon.

"Tax reform is a multiyear agenda," says his budget director, Doug Cook. "It's a long-term thing, and it will come in increments as the state gains confidence in itself."

That _ not quick fixes _ is what blue-ribbon commissions are for.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.