Rubio walks a fine line on property tax issue

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald


Published October 15, 2007

House Speaker Marco Rubio staked out both sides in the property tax debate as legislators returned to vote on the plan he has approved but is now bashing.

TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker Marco Rubio waved a letter from a 75-year-old Miami woman desperate to lower her ''overwhelming'' $10,091 tax bill on her small childhood home that she rents out in Coral Gables.

The letter is proof, he told a crowd of mortgage brokers and real estate agents, that the property tax proposal the Legislature will take up today won't go far enough.

''What do I tell her?'' Rubio asked. "Congratulations! We passed a bill! Does it save you money? No, but we had a very nice press conference.''

While Rubio's public display of cynicism over Gov. Charlie Crist's tax-cut plan seems unorthodox, it is a window into the way he has approached the issue: with a brashness that has estranged potential allies, and a campaigner's knack for choosing the facts so he looks like a winner -- even when he loses.

What Rubio doesn't say about the letter, for example, is that the Miami woman wouldn't have been any better off under any of the three tax plans he has backed since spring. The current plan centers on doubling homestead exemptions and ''portability'' so homeowners can carry tax savings to a new home.

''A lot of things he's doing and saying is posturing,'' said Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican and former Senate president who describes himself as a fan of Rubio's. 'He's saying, `I believe in a lot of the things that the people have told me that they need,' and he's setting himself up not as a short-term, but a long-term champion.''

Rubio, 35, won't comment on his future political plans, but has talked repeatedly about leading a citizens petition drive for a property tax overhaul, and resurrecting his failed plan to swap homestead taxes for increased sales taxes. Such a drive would provide him visibility to campaign for another elected office after term limits force him from the Legislature in November 2008.

''If and when Marco runs for higher office, he'll have his work cut out for him,'' said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City. "He'll either be the guy who wanted to eliminate the taxes on your home or the one who's responsible for big tax cuts.''

Geller frets that though the ''rhetoric'' helps the West Miami Republican, it could lead to huge tax cuts that damage many local government services.

Rubio emerged as the defender of deep tax cuts last spring, when he first proposed his tax swap. The $44 billion plan was rejected by the Senate, where members balked at the five-year cost and Rubio's hard-charging tactics. Lawmakers had to come back in a June special session, where Rubio and wary Republican senators finally compromised on a constitutional amendment to super-size homestead exemptions.

But the ballot language was fatally flawed. A judge threw the measure off the Jan. 29 ballot, citing ''misleading'' language, forcing legislators to all but accept this new amendment.

The new deal offers tax cuts of about $11 billion over five years -- about one-fourth of Rubio's original plan.

Now, Rubio portrays the proposal as a ''better than nothing'' deal he wants little credit for -- even though he not only signed off on it, but encouraged it when he sent Crist a letter asking him to force legislators to take up property taxes after the amendment was thrown off the ballot.

When Crist proposed the plan, Rubio said it wasn't good enough because it would have saved the average homeowner just $240 a year.

''This is not my plan and I want everyone to know it,'' he said after a Wednesday news conference, where he proposed more savings for renters and poor seniors.

Rubio suggested the add-ons to increase savings by $4 billion were his own. Senate tax negotiators, however, had agreed to the concepts as well and some were expecting to announce the additions to Crist's tax plan with the House.

Rubio's aggressive approach is also about political survival. Polls by The Miami Herald and political groups found that more people in Miami-Dade County viewed Rubio negatively than positively.

''What Marco did right was be bold and aggressive,'' said Rep. Julio Robaina, a Miami Republican. "And what he did wrong was sometimes be too bold and aggressive.''

Rubio said he has no choice because he needs to combat the ''enemies of tax relief.'' He said his dismissive statements about Crist's tax-cut plan were simply ''candor'' the public will appreciate.

Crist may have benefited most from Rubio's drive for massive tax cuts. The governor's chief of staff, George LeMieux, credits Rubio's push for turning Crist's tax-cut campaign promise "from pie in the sky to possible.''