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Fueling the anti-tax bandwagon

Floridians have voted for every anti-tax tomfoolery that comes along: To prohibit an income tax (1924). To give themselves a $5,000 homestead exemption (1934) and to raise it to $25,000 (1982). To forbid state property taxes on motor vehicles (1930) and to repeal the state property tax on land, buildings and personal property (1940). Last year, they even ratified a "Save Our Homes" initiative that was transparently a relief act for the self-selected few who live along golf courses and waterfronts. The one major tax they have approved was on corporate income (1971), a proposition that did not exactly put their altruism to the test.

Where this has left Florida is 30th among the states in state and local taxes per capita and 44th _ that is not a misprint _ in taxes as a percentage of personal income, which is the best measure of ability to pay.

That is not to say that high taxes are necessarily good or low taxes are inherently bad, but only to state the obvious: Floridians as a group do not have a compelling claim to being overtaxed.

No matter. The Florida Republican Party is preparing an anti-tax bandwagon for 1994. The vehicle, party leaders hope, will be a constitutional petition initiative campaign to keep the Legislature from raising taxes faster than the growth in Florida's personal income. Senate President Ander Crenshaw and Secretary of State Jim Smith, who are likely to be running for governor next year, have already called for a tax cap along such lines. Bill Bryant, a Tallahassee lawyer who chairs the state GOP's Policy Forum, made a strong pitch for it at a conference last weekend. Tom Slade, the state party chairman, served with Bryant on the now-defunct Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, where they and others tried unsuccessfully to put a cap on last year's ballot.

Democrats in the Legislature take the threat seriously. There's talk of proposing a less constraining alternative.

"We can either take an ostrich approach or we can work on a bill that will be reasonable and (still) let Florida have a cap," says Rep. John Long, D-Land O'Lakes, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I'm afraid that if we just say we don't like this and do nothing with it, it's going to be forced down our throat."

Superficially, the tax cappers have a beguiling argument. What's wrong with saying that taxes shouldn't go up faster than the public's ability to pay them? With giving politicians a strong incentive to make the state more prosperous? With putting everyone on notice, as Bryant puts it, "that you can't get more money by whining for it"?

Simply this: Florida's tax base is still grossly inadequate despite some sizable tax increases during the 1980s. Its notorious school dropout and crime rates are the bitter fruits of that. For a megastate like Florida to remain on a tax base inherited from the rural economy of the 1940s invites disaster.

The Legislature's chief staff economist, Ed Montanaro, has calculated that Florida's budget, now $35.2-billion, would be $2.4-billion less had Bryant's cap gone into effect with the 1985-86 budget year. That's more than the total budgets of the university system and the community colleges combined.

The Republicans say these comparisons are meaningless because any version of a tax cap would have an escape clause allowing the Legislature to raise more money by a super-majority vote. Bryant proposes three-fifths: 24 of the 40 senators and 72 of the 120 House members.

"When you needed it you could get it," insists Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Clearwater.

Perhaps. But Bryant's language would also limit such exceptions to a year at a time, which would work against using the escape hatch to fund schools or any other ongoing program that would be hard to cut if legislative coalitions broke up. The practical result: The three-fifths votes would be saved for pork.

Another objection: Because the cap would be pegged to the average personal growth of the past five years, the Legislature could still raise taxes at the outset of a recession but would be barred from raising them during the initial stages of recovery.

"What happens if you have five bad years?" asks Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Perhaps the most telling criticism is that the proposal comes unaccompanied by any tax reform. Unlike the tax reform commission, which wanted to sunset all sales tax exemptions and even talked of letting the public vote again on a personal income tax, the GOP tax cap comprehends no offsetting linkage. Smith, to his credit, has called for sales tax reform too, but Bryant, the chief GOP theoretician, points out that no constitutional amendment is needed for that.

Asks Chiles: "Is this not a way of saying that somebody who has an unfair advantage now would be able to keep that advantage forever? Where does tax reform fit in this? Where are they on that issue?"

Hoping to turn that issue against him next year, that's where.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.