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Tax reform compromise

Florida witnessed in Tallahassee last week the most astonishing role reversals since Richard Nixon went to China. Conservative House Republicans who had sworn never to sunset sales tax exemptions voted to empower a joint committee yet to be named, under rules yet to be written, to do precisely that. Liberal Democrats in the House filibustered passionately into the night against the possibility that haircuts and other services might be taxed. The House Republican leadership, which had twisted the rules early in the session to kill Senate President John McKay's straightforward tax reform, did so again to pass a unique compromise that made their erstwhile friends, the business lobbies, cry foul.

In the Senate, Democrats who supported the tax reform protested the Republican majority's redistricting plan by reading into the record a facetious inquiry: Was it not worth creating a congressional seat for House Speaker Tom Feeney in exchange for Feeney's concession to McKay on tax reform? The Republicans refused to admit that one had to do with the other. They did not directly deny it either, because they could not.

Was it worth it? Did McKay secure real tax medicine or only a placebo? It is not easy to say.

One concern about the compromise is that it might not work. The other is that it might work too well, for it sets up a taxation process without precedent.

The measure is a constitutional amendment _ subject, as always, to voter approval _ creating a joint committee of six senators and six House members to review not only all exemptions to the sales tax on merchandise but also all "exclusions," which means primarily professional fees, advertising and other untaxed services.

The 2003 session would prescribe "by joint rules," which are not subject to the governor's veto, a schedule to review all exemptions and exclusions over the ensuing three years. Before each session in 2004, 2005 and 2006, the committee would submit findings. Any decision by the committee to repeal an exemption or exclusion would take effect automatically unless the Legislature voted by resolution, at one of its next two sessions, to keep it in force.

This is a far, far cry from the conventional "sunset" McKay had wanted, in which every legislator would vote on the taxes to be reviewed, the standards for review would be clear, and the governor would have a veto going in and going out. Conceivably, this hybrid would empower as few as seven people to effectuate the repeal of any tax exemption without a vote of the Legislature as a whole.

It taxes imagination that such events might actually occur. Stating the obvious, Feeney reminded the press who will be appointing the committee: Jim King, the next Senate president, and Johnnie Byrd, the next House speaker. Byrd prefers to repeal taxes, not exemptions. King, though not as doctrinaire, is a famous friend of the business community, which, Feeney said, should be comfortable with both. Behind the bombastic rhetoric, most Republicans in the House were voting for it, and some Democrats against, in the mutual belief that it would accomplish little if anything. This concern was underscored by the House's refusal to guarantee the minority party any of the 12 seats. The Senate took up an amendment to require four but the Democratic sponsor withdrew it because it would be a deal-breaker in the House. King promised to appoint at least two Democrats, but he could not speak for the House. And the House's six votes could ensure that no significant exemption is repealed.

In that event, McKay would have won an empty victory, redeemable only by the fact that, for the first time in 30 years, the people of Florida would have been allowed to express themselves in favor of tax reform. But if their expression should then be subverted by a committee hostile to the very idea, it would erode public confidence in government.

There is also some concern that the rules are so open-ended that the Supreme Court might not allow the proposal on the ballot.

McKay and his allies fought a good fight in pursuit of high principle. With respect for their courage, foresight and perseverance, we reserve judgment on whether the compromise is worthwhile.