By MARY ELLEN KLAS AND MARC CAPUTO
Published April 30, 2007
TALLAHASSEE -- For Gov. Charlie Crist, the legislative deadlock over property taxes presents a perfect chance for the state's salesman-in-chief to do what he does best: campaign.
The media-savvy governor seized the spotlight with a series of hastily called town hall meetings, repeated his vow to have property taxes ''drop like a rock,'' and dominated headlines for three days when he rolled out his own tax plan last week that attempted to bridge the difference between the aggressive House and more modest Senate plans.
But the once-unstoppable force of the governor's charm offensive is colliding with House Speaker Marco Rubio's immovable call for massive tax decreases. It's a clash of style and substance: an ever-popular governor vs. an alluringly popular plan to swap sales taxes for property taxes.
Starting today, something or someone will have to start giving, otherwise the clock could run out Friday on the 60-day lawmaking session without a property-tax cut at all. While that appears unlikely, strange possibilities are cropping up, including:
• Dueling voter drives between two Republican leaders. Rubio, of West Miami, has already spoken of the need to bypass the very Legislature he controls by asking citizens to gather signatures and then vote on his plan to eliminate virtually all homeowner property taxes in favor of raising the sales tax. Crist, who has shied away from the controversial idea, wants to double the homestead exemption and allow people to transfer homeowner tax savings to new homes. If Rubio backs a citizen initiative, Crist is likely to do the same with a plan of his own.
• Expanding gambling. At one time the idea of allowing more gambling in the state was dismissed by the GOP-controlled Legislature. But the siren call of at least $1 billion raised by allowing parimutuels to offer Class Two slots machines is so promising, it could get a hearing as early as today in the once anti-gambling House.
• A special session devoted to property taxes later in May. Though leaders vowed to cut property taxes in the current session, Rubio has said he is willing to let the session end without agreement if the tax cut is not as deep as he believes it needs to be. He said he's in no rush, and can face property owners. Many people -- including a man Crist showcased at a Thursday press conference -- are concerned they haven't seen the large rate decreases after the Crist-led January overhaul of the insurance market.
''Nothing makes people lose confidence in government more than when we come back and claim we did something for them but they don't sense it, they don't feel it,'' Rubio said Saturday just after a cordial visit from Crist in the speaker's office to watch the NFL Draft.
Crist has built-in advantages for advancing his plan, which like Rubio's and the Senate's call for tax-rate rollbacks and future caps. The governor has repeatedly run statewide for office, has a 75 percent job-approval rating in some polls, and is skilled at using the bully pulpit and media power that come with it.
Rubio, 35, has dominated the tax-cutting agenda since February. He has promoted his plan through the power that comes with the speaker's office, as well as through advisors to former Gov. Jeb Bush, GOP-backed websites and Miami's Spanish-language radio and television.
A day after the governor stepped-up his involvement, Rubio went on Radio Mambi Wednesday night to express his displeasure with the governor's proposal.
Rubio admits that expectations are high, but he didn't oversell them. His plan aims for average savings to the following taxpayers: $1,200 for homesteads, $3,300 for commercial property and $750 for rental owners.
''I don't think those are my expectations. Those are the expectations people had,'' he said. Senators, though, say tax cuts that deep would cripple local governments and overly burden the state's sales-tax system.
Expectations are especially high in South Florida, where real estate agents, mortgage lenders and builders see property tax relief as the balm that will heal the hurting housing market.
The president of the Latin Builders Association, Ovi Vento, wrote Crist on Wednesday that he deeply regretted the governor's opposition to the House plan. 'What happened to your position of `drop like a rock?' '' Vento asked. ``We feel your newfound position floats like a buoy.''
Crist has watched this coming. As Rubio commanded the high ground for weeks, the governor stayed out of the fray. Then, last week, when it appeared legislators would begin negotiating, he told top lawmakers: ``I'm getting involved.''
The governor's style more than once knocked Rubio off message. At a Tuesday rally of the Florida Homebuilders Association outside the Capitol, Crist addressed the crowd and was followed a short time later by Rubio. As Rubio launched into the heart of his speech about ''the most important issue that this state has faced in a long time,'' Crist returned on stage -- and interrupted him.
''I just want you to know, I love this man,'' Crist said, giving the House speaker a friendly pat on the back. Rubio smiled. The normally voluble Rubio had, for a split second, lost his place.
Rubio doesn't criticize Crist's plan. He just describes its savings as inadequate, though less so than the Senate's. The governor's proposal to double the homestead exemption, for example, would save the average homeowner $200 a year.
Crist praises Rubio's smarts and big-ideas promotions. So has Senate President Ken Pruitt, who's key to getting a tax package passed and has avoided the most heat by saying the least.
Crist says Rubio's frustration wasn't a big deal. ''Things got a little tense. It happens in this process,'' he said. He is also optimistic that they'll finish this week.
And Rubio is ever-defiant. ''It's not an athletic competition,'' he said, after Crist left his office Saturday. ``This is not who wins or loses. This is about results.''