CAPUTO AND MARY ELLEN KLAS
TALLAHASSEE --The legislative stalemate suffocating House Speaker Marco Rubio's tax-cut plan had finally gotten to him. So he called a Spanish-language Miami radio show and portrayed himself as the victim of a ''fix'' engineered by local-government lobbyists who had won the governor's ear.
''I am upset with the governor'' said an agitated Rubio, who had learned earlier that Gov. Charlie Crist had proposed a rival plan while dismissing the West Miami legislator's proposal. On the Wednesday night talk show, Rubio said the lobbyists had ''descended on the capital'' to oppose significant tax cuts.
Were these the off-the-cuff remarks of a true-believing, thin-skinned 35-year-old politician with ambitions of higher office? Or was it all an appeal to sympathetic listeners of Radio Mambi's La Noche y Usted show to help him push a reluctant Senate and eager-to-please governor for deeper cuts?
Rubio's political chess-playing and brinksmanship during the now-stalled negotiations over property taxes have political strategists guessing. Most surprising is that Rubio -- one of the two most powerful legislative leaders -- told listeners he wanted them to back a referendum drive to bypass the Legislature and eliminate most homeowner property taxes in favor of raising sales taxes 2.5 cents.
''I don't know how much is negotiating or how much of it is dead-rock principle. Nobody knows, except perhaps the speaker,'' said J.M. ''Mac'' Stipanovich, a Crist-backing lobbyist and one-time staff chief for former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.
''The upside is, if the speaker's goal is significant tax relief for large numbers of people in Florida, he's going to succeed,'' Stipanovich said.
However, if Rubio leads a petition drive, he'll face the opposition from the business lobby, which fears the cooling sales that come with higher sales taxes, especially on big-ticket items like televisions and cars. Many businesses might block signature gatherers from their workplace.
And regardless of the fact that he's proposing the largest property-tax cut in the state's history, Rubio's plan is also one of the biggest tax increases in state history -- something that makes the plan ''tough sledding,'' in the words of Gov. Crist.
Crist's own plan seeks a middle ground. It proposes reducing taxes over five years by $33.5 billion -- in contrast to $15 billion in the Senate and $47 billion in the House. It would roll back the tax base to 2003, ask voters to double the homestead exemption, allow homeowners to take tax savings with them when they move and give first-time homeowners a tax break.
With negotiations deadlocked, House and Senate leaders called off formal talks Thursday. Senate leaders, fearing dire budget cuts to poor cities like Opa-locka, said they will resume once they have agreement on the ground rules.
To keep the pressure on, Crist held a press conference Thursday, featuring an elderly couple still hurting from high property taxes and a deaf man from Palm Beach Gardens who used a sign-language translator to say that property taxes were making it impossible for him to move into a new home with his fiancée.
The governor noted, however, that the process requires compromise: ``It's not perfection. You're never going to please everybody.''
Rubio, however, has insisted the opposite. He has repeatedly said the House's goal is not to seek consensus but a tax plan that provides true savings to all homeowners.
''I'm for doing the doable,'' Rubio said again on Thursday. ''As long as it's not a Tallahassee special'' promising relief but not delivering deep enough cuts, he added.