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HEADING FOR A WINDFALL

For A Better Florida is the St. Petersburg Times' preview of the annual legislative session. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state. This is the second of a three-part series, which will continue on March 5.

For all its eye-popping potential, the figure rolled casually off Gov. Jeb Bush's tongue: $1.5-billion. It would be the largest collective tax cut in Florida history.

Announcing his proposal last month, Bush noted that part of the plan included a Democrat-backed tax rebate worth $500-million. He turned to state Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, and joked, "I wanted to kiss you."

The good vibes in Tallahassee are courtesy of state economists who say a red-hot real estate market and posthurricane rebuilding have left the state with $3.2-billion more than expected - the third straight year of multibillion-dollar excess.

"Our cup," the governor said, "runneth over."

But where it spills is an entirely different matter. In an election-year grab fest, there is no shortage of ideas for spending the money, from tax cuts on plasma TVs to wooing space enterprise and socking some away for darker days.

"The magnitude of money is unique," said Kurt Wenner, senior analyst for Florida TaxWatch, a conservative watchdog group. "And it's unique when you go into a session and both parties are talking about tax cuts. It'll be contentious, certainly."

The struggle expected to unfold over the coming weeks shows that windfalls can be as stressful as shortfalls.

"Each scenario brings its own headaches," said Amy Baker, coordinator for the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research and one of the economists who projected the additional revenue.

Increasing the tension are different perceptions of what "conservative Republican" means when it comes to budgeting.

Senate President Tom Lee has yet to endorse a plan but worries that spending too much of the extra cash this year could cause problems three years from now, when the state's needs are expected to outpace tax collection.

"The question is, do we have the fiscal discipline to leave enough of it on the table?" he asked.

His counterpart in the House, Rep. Allan Bense, has taken a different tack, backing a proposal to give a huge chunk of the money back to taxpayers. "I believe in the multiplier effect," he said. "That when we give money back to the people, they spend it wiser and better than government and buy more goods, more services that in turn generate more sales tax."

Bense backs Stuart Republican Joe Negron's call for a one-week sales tax holiday on big-ticket items such as plasma TVs and cars. It would result in a revenue loss of $460-million to the state and $40-million to local governments.

Democrats, who decry Negron's plan as a "gimmick," have found an unlikely ally in Bush. When the governor unveiled his tax package last month, he passed over the spending spree in favor of the one-time $100 tax rebate for homeowners.

Negron, the chief budget writer in the House, said he respects Bush's decision but "this is a collaborative process, and the House and Senate will have their input as well." He is running for attorney general in a crowded Republican primary on Sept. 5, a month after the tax cut would expire.

"When a business has a good year, it pays dividends to its shareholders," Negron said, rejecting talk of election-year motivations. "Just because money comes to Tallahassee doesn't mean we have to spend it all."

Negron is not the only politician who could score points with voters. Tom Gallagher, the state chief financial officer who's vying to replace Bush, wants to use some of the windfall to offset rising homeowner costs under Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

Prominent Democrats agree with Gallagher, but the idea is opposed by Bush and Lee, making it less likely to succeed.

Rod Smith, a state senator from Alachua seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, wants to put $2-billion of the surplus toward school construction and spend hundreds of millions more to protect the environment and shore up the state's hurricane catastrophe fund.

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, the other Democrat running for governor, would steer money to education as well as Medicaid and other pressing needs. "How about a holiday from school overcrowding? How about a year-round holiday from traffic congestion?" Davis said. ""We need a governor who's going to think about the future, not the next election."

So far, though, the outgoing executive is setting the agenda.

Under Bush's watch, more than $14-billion in taxes have been cut. If his new proposal is fully enacted, the figure would swell to $20.3-billion.

Bush also will push this year to roll back the property tax rate charged for schools and make permanent the sales tax holidays for school shopping and hurricane preparation. He would eliminate the alcohol "by the drink" tax affecting about 20,000 businesses and send a gift to wealthy individuals by repealing the "intangibles" tax on stocks, bonds and notes.

All of those come at a cost, of course. Cutting the intangibles tax alone would cost the state $130-million annually. Reducing the school property tax rate would cost schools $570-million.

"We'd rather use that money for teacher salaries and bonuses, but philosophically I know where that's going," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

The heavy focus on tax cuts has some others worried.

"Growth is not letting up. We're going to continue to add millions of people to Florida," said Curt Kiser, a former Republican legislator from Pinellas County and chairman of the LeRoy Collins Institute, a nonprofit public policy research group. "It's time to be much more serious about playing catch-up on sewage and water systems, roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs."

Bense, for one, has touched on similar themes but only in general terms. Lee seems even more intent on following that advice. Last year, he wanted to allocate $2.2-billion for growth-related causes. Given the election year, it seems unlikely he would try something so ambitious again.

Florida TaxWatch has called for a large portion of the money to be used to pay down state debt, now at $22.5-billion. By using $1.75-billion of the new money, the group estimates, the state would avoid $160-million in annual debt service payments.

"Debt reduction would not produce ribbon-cuttings or bill-signing ceremonies, but it is a true fiscally conservative response to all of this available revenue," TaxWatch asserted in a report.

Not all the talk is about tax cuts. Bush garnered applause from environmentalists with his proposal to put $735-million toward Everglades restoration and the purchase of conservation lands, including what would be the state's largest land acquisition: the 74,000-acre Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida.

The House would double one of Bush's proposals by allocating $100-million to retrofit older homes to make them more resistant to hurricanes.

Politicians will also be vying for local projects. Dozens of requests are already in, including $1.2-million to finish covering a horse arena at the Citrus County fairgrounds, $500,000 to help remodel the Palm Harbor Library and $1-million for restoring Tampa Bay waterways.

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