ANALYSIS: Prospect of losing clout may explain Rubio's tax switch

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post


Published October 20, 2007


TALLAHASSEE — Observers hoping to understand the dynamics of the property tax debate this week may want to mind the ticking of the clock.

No, not the literal one, which gets to zero at 5 p.m., Oct. 30 - the deadline for putting a new tax plan on the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot.

The more important countdown is a figurative one, and it marks the moment that will come next spring when House Speaker Marco Rubio's power as outgoing presiding officer dwindles to where he can no longer set the statehouse agenda.

And the realization of that political mortality, many believe, is driving the dramatic about-face Rubio, R-West Miami, exhibited over the past two weeks - from publicly supporting a relatively simple proposal by Gov. Charlie Crist costing about $7 billion over four years to abandoning a signed deal and insisting on a massive proposal totaling upwards of $30 billion in cuts, before it was modified late Friday to one that would reduce taxes by about $11 billion.

In diverging from Crist's script, he has angered Senate leaders who months ago grew weary of what they consider a recklessness on major policy questions - to the point where Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, explaining that his colleagues would return no earlier than Tuesday, added in a moment of pique: "But there's no guarantee we're coming back at all."

And if that were to happen, Crist would be thwarted in his concerted effort to replace the June "super" exemption proposal with two simpler concepts - doubling the $25,000 homestead exemption and creating "portability" for Save Our Homes benefits. The super exemption proposal has been thrown off the Jan. 29 ballot by a judge and, even it were to be restored upon appeal, it appears to enjoy only marginal public support, whereas Crist campaigned on the other two concepts last year and they continue to enjoy overwhelming support in polls.

If a new proposal fails to make it to the secretary of state's office by 5 p.m. Oct. 30, Crist would be forced to successfully defend the legally suspect June plan or not have anything at all on that ballot, a major blow.

Senators in step with Crist

Given the temperaments and worldviews involved, that it got to this point surprises few.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, Webster and other Republican senators have tried to accommodate Crist's desire for those two tax cuts, while also protecting what will likely become the primary money stream for public schools in the coming years.

In the senators' view, slashing the schools property tax carries enormous political consequences if afterward they fail to make up the lost revenue from limited state dollars.

In the House, the policies appear driven by supply-side ideology that builds on an assertion that taxing property is bad, while taxing consumption is good - hence the long-term goal of replacing the property tax with a statewide sales tax increase.

Even Rubio's "low-income seniors" proposal, some senators believe, is in reality just another manifestation of that ideology.

When the House originally brought up the idea of further help for low-income seniors several weeks ago, the Senate proposed an exemption cap of $300,000. The House said that was too low and countered with a $1 million cap.

Because state law already permits elderly homeowners to defer tax bills until the sale of the house or the homeowner's death, the demand for an exemption for poor senior citizens doesn't seem necessary unless it is part of a foot-in-the-door strategy, one top senator posed privately. By giving one class of homeowners a total exemption on all property taxes, a precedent is set - and it becomes much easier to broaden that category over time: lowering the qualifying age, increasing the income ceiling, or both.

"It's the camel's nose," the senator said.

Risks in countering Crist

As he did prior to the June special session on property taxes, Rubio backed away Friday from his insistence on replacing some schools property tax with a penny increase on the statewide sales tax - a levy most economists call regressive because it disproportionately hits the poor.

He also toned down two other proposals - regarding low-income seniors and a non-homestead assessment cap - but a plan released by his chamber still offers a complicated alternative to Crist's simple doubling of the homestead exemption.

Expressly rejecting the desire of a fellow Republican governor with approval ratings near 70 percent may play well to the segment of Rubio's Republican Party "base" that craves even deeper tax cuts, but it carries political risk.

On the other hand, a speaker's real power generally runs from the spring before he officially takes over through the first weeks of his second and final regular session. After that, members start looking forward to the new leader - in this case, Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, whom many senators regard as much less doctrinaire than Rubio - and to the coming elections.

For Rubio, the coming week may well be his last, best shot at turning some of his "bold" talk into real action. His actions this week suggest he understands this - that he, too, hears the ticking of the clock.

And that's what Senate leaders are afraid of.