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Tax plan collects little support

If anyone expected a stampede for taxes, it's not starting this week _ and it may not happen at all.

Support for Gov. Lawton Chiles' proposed $1.3-billion tax increase among state legislators is thin in the House where the Democratic leadership usually can move the membership toward approval of priority items.

It's practically non-existent in the state Senate, where a strong Republican minority has been flexing its muscle and promises to block the tax plan.

The chances appear good that the issue never even will come to a vote on the floor of either House.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Winston "Bud" Gardner said only eight to 10 of the 40 senators would vote for a tax, and the House will not vote on any tax that is not first approved in the Senate.

That puts the ball squarely in the court of the 18 Senate Republicans and a few conservative Democrats who oppose most tax plans being considered.

What's more, Gardner, in a brief meeting with Seminole County PTA members in town to support higher education financing, said he believes the bare-bones "reality" budget that has been approved by the House and Senate could become the final 1992-93 budget.

"We could be making it just good enough to sustain an override" of a governor's veto, he said.

House Speaker T.K. Wetherell, D-Daytona Beach, said he doesn't think either the House or Senate has the votes now to override the governor's veto, which would leave the Legislature hopelessly deadlocked. It takes a two-thirds majority in each house to override a veto.

"I think it might be hard for the Senate to override," he said. "An override of the governor's veto of the budget in the House would be very, very difficult to do. I think we'd sustain his veto, which is something the Senate needs to think about."

That raises the question of just what the Legislature can do. It can't raise taxes and can't override the governor's veto of the budget without taxes.

The House Finance and Tax Committee began looking at a $1.1-billion tax plan this week. Committee Chairman Mike Abrams, D-North Miami Beach, crafted an alternative to Chiles' plan. It includes many of the taxes Chiles wants, including business and wealth taxes, but not the new taxes on water, sewer and garbage that Chiles wanted. The House plan also left out the cable television and hospital and nursing home taxes Chiles wanted.

Wetherell said he won't bring the tax plan to a vote of the full House until he sees some support from the Senate.

"We're trying to get them to kind of join us," he said. So far, there has been no sign of support. "I think everybody's got to see it, and it's got to cook for a little while."

Even though the need is great in schools, social services, law enforcement and the environment, legislators say the anti-tax sentiment this year is greater.

Sen. Sherry Walker, D-Waukeenah, said Suwannee County commissioners held a hearing on Chiles' $1.3-billion tax package and took the unusual step of passing a resolution against new taxes. Like Chiles, the Suwannee County commissioners are Democrats.

"The voters in my district have been contacting my office and stating no new taxes," said Walker, a Democrat who ran on an anti-tax platform herself in 1988. "There are some people calling from the education community, but when our office asks them which taxes they support, they go vague."

Sen. Bob Johnson, R-Sarasota, said he won't support taxes under any circumstances. The state has too many uncollected taxes, the formula for distributing money is unfair to his counties and the state doesn't get its fair share of federal money. Until all those things are fixed, Johnson said he won't support new taxes.

"There are no circumstances under which I'd vote for the Chiles package," said Sen. Fred Dudley, R-Fort Myers.

Several senators, including a couple of Republicans, say they would vote for a new tax only if education cannot be financed without it and only if legislators are ready to reform the entire state tax structure.

"The only increase I'd even entertain would be after all the budget maneuvering is done, we can't get back to last year's level of funding, I'd look at a tax increase for education," said Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor.

Others cited the state's high unemployment rate, saying they were unwilling to add to constituents' economic woes with additional taxes.

"I've been in business for 20 years, and this is by far the worst of the three economic recessions I've been through," noted Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton. "No economist will tell you taxes doesn't do anything but aggravate an economic recession. There is no way I'll vote to put more people out of work."

"People are flat on their backs at this time," said Sen. Rick Dantzler, D-Winter Haven. "I don't want to hurt them any more."

The interest groups looking for more money in the budget also have not yet persuaded the Legislature.

"There doesn't appear to be any wagon trains heading in this direction," Wetherell said. "You can't make it work until everybody gets their back to the wall."

If the Legislature goes home without raising taxes, there is speculation that lawmakers will take up taxes after the November election.

Karen Gievers, the Miami lawyer who brought a lawsuit against the state on behalf of 10,000 foster care children, said she is still trying to round up support for Chiles' tax plan.

"We have to look for Senate "R' votes," she said. "A couple have told us they would prefer not to lead the charge, but if any tax were tied to an issue like fixing foster kids, they would vote for it. Some of the senators we've spoken with say they just don't see any way it's going to happen this session. They haven't committed to supporting it in the organizational session."