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What Chiles didn't say

The Republicans have been blaming Gov. Lawton Chiles for everything from acne to Red Tide. Now they accuse him of wanting a personal income tax, too. You can't say anything more damaging to a Florida politician, other maybe than that he molests little boys.

This bit of hooey, I have to say, has nothing to do with Jeb (!) Bush. It apparently sprang Sunday from the imperfect recollections of Paul Bed-inghaus, a county-level Pinellas pol who was subbing at a debate for the local GOP chairman, Lou Kwall.

"Gov. Chiles," said Bedinghaus, "has said time and time again that we need a state income tax for individuals."

If only.

I have tried for years to get Chiles to say anything like that. He wouldn't. He hasn't. He won't.

The closest he came was in 1991, in an interview, when he said it wouldn't be worth the effort.

"I've been around the state long enough to know it's not going to happen," he said. "The constituency that needs to be for it is the one that's most against it. I'm not saying "Read my lips, I'll never be for an income tax". . . . A lot of people put me on the other side. I'm not against an income tax. It isn't practical now. It isn't going to happen."

More recently, he has called it "a mountain I'm not prepared to climb."

I asked Bedinghaus to document where Chiles had ever said Florida needs the tax. Specifically when and where?

"I"m thinking," Bedinghaus said. "I'm sure I read it in various articles. I'm not going to be able to help you on that."

Bedinghaus might have been confusing the Democratic governor with Tom Slade, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party. In 1992, as a member of the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which was considering an ambitious agenda of proposed constitutional amendments, Slade was one of the most vociferous advocates for the not unreasonable proposition that no reform could be complete unless it offered the voters an opportunity to repeal the 70-year-old ban on personal income taxation.

"Let me share with you," said Slade, "the fundamental belief that there is no more equitable basis upon which to collect a tax than from the income side of one's success."

Slade, a former legislator, wasn't the GOP state chair then. He was on the commission as a private citizen, appointed by former Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican. Earlier this year, however, Slade told me he thinks it would be worth a try to ask Florida voters to accept an income tax in exchange for abolishing the property tax now levied for schools. It would, he said, be fairer.

"I've never, never been afraid of referendums," Slade said.

But in 1991 and 1992, Chiles was. An income tax was the last thing he wanted on the ballot in a redistricting year with Congress and the Legislature at stake. He smelled a trap, suspecting the issue would be turned against Democrats. Not only did Chiles refuse to endorse it, but he pressured the commission to reverse course. Without a governor willing to lead the way, the commission had no other practical choice.

"His people came to us and asked us to keep that off the ballot," says Steve Uhlfelder, a former member and close friend whom Chiles recently appointed to the Board of Regents. "It was Gov. Chiles that got a lot of Democratic members like me to not support the income tax even though there were some of us philosophically in favor of it."

Uhlfelder said Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay "talked to me about it not being a good idea." But for the Chiles administration, "I believe it would have been on the ballot. They felt it would hurt the other serious efforts to reform the tax structure and make it more equitable."

There hasn't been any other reform. Chiles now is talking about taxing professional services in exchange for a property tax rollback. The words "income tax," however, have not passed his lips.

Too bad, too bad. Florida really does need to consider the option. I was reminded of one of the reasons recently by an elderly reader _ who didn't send a return address and whose signature appears to be Leonard Marz _ who objected to my recent column on the intangibles tax.

"Where do you get the intangible is fair?" he wrote. "Many retirees pay it. It takes a lot of assets to earn a living off your investments. . . . You just don't want an income tax cause it would hit you too."

He must not have been reading me very long. I have argued for years that an income tax would be fairer than the mishmash we have now. Retirees like Marz would probably pay less. The tax on saved income (stocks, bonds but, irrationally, not cash) would surely be the first to go.

Slade was right. This is the debate Florida needs. But until he or someone can muzzle Republicans like Bed-inghaus, who make it an issue when it isn't, voters never will be afforded the choice.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.