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$200 a year versus a measly 17 cents

Crocodile tears were gushing in a Senate committee room the other morning over Florida's campaign financing law, which subsidizes candidates for governor and Cabinet who agree to limit their total spending. To hear committee chairman Charlie Crist and most of the other Republicans, it is a terrible thing to tax the public in behalf of politicians they might not support.

"There's a lot of good uses for that money which could be used for purposes other than funding political campaigns," said Crist. Among them, he said, could be 4,110 more teachers.

Sure, Charlie. As if the Legislature wouldn't spend it on "economic development" (translation: tax exemptions) instead.

In fact, the taxes that go into public finance cost each citizen just 17 cents a year. Seventeen cents! That's hardly too much to pay to keep Florida's top offices out of hock to monied interests such as the banking industry, which had accustomed itself to re-electing the comptroller every four years until retired Gen. Bob Milligan beat incumbent Gerald Lewis in 1994.

Milligan, the dark horse in that race, has reminded his fellow Republicans that he owed his narrow victory not just to his ardent network of ex-Marines but to the $98,364 in matching funds that helped him buy critically important television time late in the campaign against Lewis, who had raised $1-million.

But the Republicans would rather talk about how Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles used the law against Jeb Bush, who turned down matching funds while raising nearly $10-million privately. For every dollar Bush spent above the $5-million ceiling that Chiles had accepted, the state gave Chiles a dollar to match it. The Republicans fear that this will happen again next year, when Bush expects to be running for governor against Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. The alternative of simply urging Bush to play by the same rules doesn't seem to occur to them.

Neither does the thought of repealing some $3-billion in tax exemptions that might not be in the statute books if the public had been consulted. The taxes that went into election financing, by comparison, amounted to a trifling $8.5-million, or barely $2-million a year for the election cycle.

By coincidence, the Senate finance and tax subcommittee met the same day to review the tax exemptions that have become embedded in the statutes over the years. Since every exemption has the same effect as a check drawn on the treasury, they are costing each of us more than $200 a year, which is a lot more than 17 cents. But you don't hear Senate committee chairmen calculating how many more could be hired for that.

It's unlikely that the subcommittee's hearing will lead to the repeal of any of those exemptions, though it may help to discourage the Legislature from creating as many new ones as individual legislators and lobbyists would like.

A third of the $3-billion represents selected services, such as legal fees, which the Legislature actually taxed in 1987 before quickly losing its nerve. Those can be rationalized, if not justified, on the premise that Florida taxes every form of transaction except services. Harder to explain, however, are more than 100 specific exemptions for this and that. Among them is the $18.2-million write-off for cigarettes sold on Indian reservations, described as a "specific group business incentive." For Florida's non-smoking majority, that's an $18.2-million outrage.

Party fishing boats, which sell daily tickets to the masses, must collect sales tax. Not so the costlier private charter boats, which are tax-exempt to the tune of $18.8-million a year.

A sales tax exemption for "movie theater concession rent" is costing some $2.5-million a year. No one seemed to know why, though former Sen. Curt Kiser, a lobbyist now, ventured that the alternative would be to "raise the price of popcorn."

The senators did seem mildly alarmed that we're giving away some $12-million a year for the benefit of the owners and operators of coin-operated amusement machines, who pay tax at only 4 percent instead of 6, but appeared satisfied by Kiser's explanation that it was a "settlement" in exchange for the industry's agreement to stricter enforcement mechanisms. As this column reported two years ago, it was also a deal swung by one of the Capitol's shrewdest lobbyists as part of a much larger package of "incentives."

There are now 1,696 lobbyists registered to represent 1,765 clients before the Legislature and such "incentives" are the primary reason why many if not most of them are there. To have the governor, at least, not owe his election to them is well worth every public penny that went into the election fund.