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What to expect from the special session

Author johnbsims3
Admin Male

#1 | Posted: 6 May 2007 18:34 
Florida Insider, 05/03/2007

What to expect from the special session

Expect a statutory property-tax rollback somewhere about halfway between the state Senate's original offer and the House's.

Expect too a constitutional amendment to go to voters this fall that would provide structural tax relief going forward. It will probably take the form of a sort of expanded homestead exemption, but based on a percentage of a home's taxable value, instead of on a set dollar amount.

Then expect initial irritation from Florida homeowners that the rollbacks aren't enough, and that there will be too much confusion about tax bills and local government services for the coming fiscal year because of the late arrival of tax reform from the Legislature. The special session is scheduled for June 12-22. A statewide vote on a constitutional amendment could come no earlier than September. By that time, local government budgets are into brass-tacks negotiations, and property-tax bills have been mailed.

As the election year of 2008 unfolds, look for a gradual sigh of relief from more and more homeowners as they start to figure out the dollar-amount savings the new "exemptions" would bring them.

Meanwhile, local government officials will launch scathing public attacks on the Legislature in general. The wisest among them will also publicly or privately lobby their own state lawmakers to bring home more local-project money next year in exchange for reelection support, and as a sort of compensation for lost local revenues.

The state Senate believed its own bosh during negotiations over the past weeks. Its leaders were overconfident, perhaps as much in the governor as in themselves. Senators refused to "play politics" in a pronounced political situation.

What they failed to realize was that, unlike the marquee issues debated during last year's regular session - growth management and Medicaid reform, for example - public concern over property taxes provided political capital to those shrewd and gutsy and perhaps cynical enough to take advantage of it.

House Speaker Marco Rubio played it just as we've suspected all along. Only now, after having elevated his own stature and modestly dampened the governor's, does he hint that he may be willing to take an increased state sales tax off the negotiating table. (House leadership in conference negotiations has all along expressed a philosophical willingness to forgo an increased sales tax, but only now are they getting more specific.)

Rubio's biggest decision now is whether to press forward with the statewide public-relations campaign for his reform plan. That will be the unacknowledged barometer of how negotiations are going in the coming weeks among the House, Senate and perhaps governor's office. At least some PR is likely, just to maintain momentum. The question is how much would help, and how much would hurt by being seen as bullying overkill.

The carping about the failure of the Legislature to solve the problem in regular session that's coming from Democrats and Villalobos-school Republicans sounds routine, almost irrelevant. They can't afford to be the obstructionists next month, even if it means providing the needed 75% in each chamber to put a constitutional amendment before voters this year.

Governor Charlie Crist has been strangely sidelined. Now he needs a legislative success in June as much as anyone. Look for his office to seek ways to put the Crist stamp on whatever plan is negotiated in the coming weeks.

Newspaper criticism of the do-nothing Legislature will also contribute to a brokered deal in June. Expectations of lawmakers are too high to allow failure, which would taint all parties.

This dynamic is illustrated by the anecdotal judgments by random Floridians and lobbyists that have been quoted in newspapers about property-tax reform. There's been no consensus of opinion among either the quoted sentiments themselves, or the newspapers' selection and presentation of those quotes. For every quote castigating Rubio for his political ambition, there have been two praising him for his audacity. This is a victory for Rubio, if perhaps a temporary and limited one, because usually Floridians don't know and don't care who the legislative leaders are.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel in its report today actually had some tepid criticism of Governor Crist for his perceived weakness in all this. This negative take on the governor is all the more revealing because it's so rare. Look for Crist to make it known he wants in on the credit, or out of the blame, and may be willing to wield or lay down his veto pen on the budget to accomplish just that.

Be it noted that media clamors for open negotiations in state government, then condemns the messiness of the process that ensues. But this is standard fare, and probably without great significance. Only on issues tangential to the lives of most Floridians does process matter. On tax reform, only substance will matter.

Also don't be surprised if local governments eventually, somehow seek political cover to raise local sales taxes to cover revenue losses from the reforms. Some House Democrats are already whispering about providing this cover. What an irony if the loudest critics of Rubio's sales-tax-swap plan ended up being the ones creating such a tax.

The new star from this drama is state Rep. Dean Cannon, the Republican from Winter Park who will be House speaker in 2011. As the lead House negotiator in conference committee, and pitted "against" superstar Republican Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, Cannon was canny and determined. (As was Webster.)

Insiders say it's inaccurate to call the ongoing negotiations a done deal waiting for public presentation. The situation remains fluid. But expect general cooperation among negotiators because everybody will now sink or swim together, now that Rubio has taken his brinkmanship as far as he intended.

The best two chances for mucking up the works between now and June 12 are a pro-Rubio public-relations campaign that might publicly embarrass the Senate or the governor by being too heavy-handed; or an attempt by the governor's office to reassert Crist's political dominance by throwing his weight around.

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What to expect from the special session
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