Florida's tax system suffers from glaring inequities, a heavy burden on the poor, see-saw revenues and entirely too many special-interest breaks. That's why the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission can't afford to waste time on political sideshows like school vouchers.
The commission is appointed only once every two decades and enjoys the constitutional privilege of putting proposed amendments directly on the ballot. Already, though, chairman and former House Speaker Allan Bense has said he wants to politely defer to a legislative initiative on property taxes in January. And Roberto Martinez, chairman of a governmental services committee, said earlier this month he wants to give constitutional protection to vouchers. That might please former Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Martinez to the state Board of Education, but it doesn't square with the commission's prescribed duties.
The Tax Commission is indeed hard at work, holding a series of briefings on key issues. But the time line is short, with a May 4 deadline for placing questions on the November 2008 ballot, and the task is imposing. Would it be fairer, for example, to remove some exemptions from the sales tax and lower the rate for everyone?
If this year's legislative quagmire on property taxes is not revealing enough, the commission might take note of the reason lawmakers have called their third special session of the year. A downturn in housing sales and retail purchases has cost Florida $1-billion in taxes it was planning to collect this year, forcing lawmakers to return in September to cut more from the budget.
To hear House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt tell it, the revenue shortfall is an economic force of nature. But that assumes the tax system is carefully balanced and measured to the state's wealth and economy. It is anything but.
One reason Florida can rank 38th among states in taxes as a percentage of income and still sock some retirees with a hefty property tax bill is that the burden is not distributed fairly or widely. That's also why state revenue is so hard to predict, with yearly increases over the past four decades ranging as low as 1 percent and as high as 27 percent.
Lawmakers have been unable or unwilling to update a tax system that hasn't changed demonstrably in more than a half-century. Though the state is not about to adopt an income tax, it can at least make sure the sales tax is spread more fairly across the economy. It can make sure businesses are paying their fair share (a new report ranks the "business tax climate" as fifth best in the nation, meaning fifth lightest).
Unfortunately, the Legislature in recent years has only made the problems worse. Consider the state tax on people's stocks and bonds. As recently as 10 years ago, the "intangibles" tax produced $1-billion in revenue mostly from people with higher incomes and assets. In the current market, those stocks are doing as well as ever. But under Bush, the tax was abolished. Now the state collects nothing.
The intangibles tax is only one example of how a tax break for one group comes at the expense of others, but its scale is relevant. At roughly $1-billion, it matches the projected shortfall this year. So if lawmakers had kept the tax, they would have no reason for a special session and no reason to forsake public schools and universities that already have faced cutbacks.
There is no simple fix to the tax structure in Florida, which is one reason the Tax Commission is written into the Constitution. Its members are not elected and they are supposed to be able to rise above the crass politics that typically surround tax policy. They are supposed to be able to take the broad view. That also means they can't let super exemptions and school vouchers get in the way.