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The governor's say on tax reform

Published Sep. 2, 2005

People who wondered whether Gov. Jeb Bush would ever approve a tax increase finally have their answer: Yes, so long as his fingerprints wouldn't be on it.

That's one of the several striking features of the compromise that allowed Senate President John McKay to savor a tax reform victory, let legislators go home for a while, and designed a new congressional district to Speaker Tom Feeney's specifications.

The tax deal checks off to a 12-member legislative committee _ six from each house _ the power to single out any sales tax exemption for repeal and to initiate a tax on any service, such as haircutting, estate counseling or advertising. The decision of this junta _ or of the "12-member unicameral Legislature," as lobbyist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich promptly dubbed it _ would become law if the Legislature did not rescind it during one of the next two sessions.

In voting, if they voted at all, the House and Senate would be acting on a resolution rather than a bill. Governors don't sign resolutions. They can't veto them, either.

So it would be possible that as few as seven of the legislators (a majority of the junta) could gin up a very large tax increase that would take effect without anyone else having a thing to do with it. The House and Senate could vote unanimously to rescind various different parts of it, get hung up over the details, and disclaim responsibility for failing to agree in time to stop it. The governor could cry all the way to the bank.

Isn't that neat?

This would be wildly unconstitutional, of course, if they were trying to set it up by law. So they are proposing to change the constitution. A state can do anything it likes in its own constitution so long as it doesn't offend something in the U.S. Constitution. One can imagine due process and equal protection claims being raised if it targeted any tax exemption that important people cared about _ which is to say, anything more significant than ostrich feed. But for now, we are going to vote on amending it into Florida's Constitution.

And guess what? Governors don't sign or veto constitutional amendments either. That's neat, too.

The business lobbyists, who thought they had stopped McKay cold, are blaming Bush nonetheless. On begging their friends in the House to kill the compromise, they were told that the governor had met privately with the House Republicans to strongly endorse it. If that is so, it happened at a Wednesday night caucus that was closed to the press because it was to concern redistricting, an exception to open-caucus rules. And yes, a congressional seat for Feeney was involved.

For all their wrath, Stipanovich and the other antireform lobbyists don't really believe that any significant tax increase would actually be put over on them. Jim King, the Senate president-designate, would probably name some members who really believe in significant tax reform, but it would be a stunning surprise if Speaker-designate Johnnie Byrd did.

As nothing can ever be taken for granted, the lobbies will doubtlessly find it prudent to be very generous to the campaign accounts of committee members and those who will be appointing them, and to their party soft-money slush funds. The House may have had that in mind when it refused to set aside any of the seats for Democrats. Ostensibly, that was to increase the business community's comfort level. But if you ask me, it was also a matter of "Why share the wealth?"

Tax reform is always vulnerable, of course, to being misused as a shakedown racket. This would have been true also of McKay's original (and much better) proposal. In that instance, however, there was no question of entrusting self-executing power to any elite clique within the Legislature.

Senators openly alluded to the difference _ and the different consequences _ in debate Friday night. In trying to reassure fellow senators about the compromise, Democrat Rod Smith of Gainesville also sent a blunt message to whoever might serve on the joint committee.

"Trust me," he said. "The money won't be worth the newspaper articles."

Trouble is, there are some legislators who are impossible to shame.

None of what I have written is intended to minimize the significance of McKay's victory. He forced the Legislature to accept the fact that Florida's tax code needs an overhaul. Whether the effort turns out to be sincere or only for show is a question for later, and I am not optimistic about the answer. The people, however, should not forget what he did, and they should be unforgiving of anyone who undertakes to betray it.