Legislators hone message on property relief as competing plans clash


Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Anthony Man
Published  April 27, 2007

 

TALLAHASSEE The governor has traveled the state for town hall meetings. The House speaker has appeared at a rally on the steps of the Capitol and on Spanish-language radio. And senators are trying to talk in language understandable to all Florida families.

While the official work on property tax changes goes on in negotiations between the House and Senate -- a process Gov. Charlie Crist attempted to accelerate at midweek by proposing his own plan--much of the real work involves politicians trying to shape the message being relayed to the public by the media. It's a daily exercise, even an hourly one in the Internet age, as everyone tries to rally public opinion and gain political advantage.

Putting forth a strong message and the resulting public impressions are vital in this kind of major policy debate, said Alia Faraj, a vice president of Ron Sachs Communications, a Tallahassee public relations firm. It's an exercise Faraj knows well; she was former Gov. Jeb Bush's communications director.

"It is very important. You have to reach out. You have to garner support," she said.

Key to achieving that, Faraj said, is "simplifying the message. You need to break through the clutter."

Crist constantly tells people he wants taxes to "drop like a rock." Senate Minority Leader Steven Geller, D-Cooper City, never tires of expressing his view that the public doesn't want to cut property taxes so much that vital services will be jeopardized.

Geller's many-times-a-day line: "When people dial 911, they want somebody to show up."

Perhaps no one in the debate demonstrates as much message discipline as Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. The lead House property tax negotiator repeats his objective so often -- three times in one negotiating session this week -- that Geller finally called him on it.

"It should be branded across my head by now," Geller said.

Cannon's call is for cutting taxes for homesteaded property owners by a minimum of $1,200 a year, non-homesteaded residential property by $750 and commercial property owners at least $3,300. That's easy to grasp and support. After all, who wouldn't want that kind of money?

It irritates senators, both Republicans and Democrats, because Cannon never goes into the details, which Senate analysts say would add up to an impossible-to-implement 70 percent cut in all local government tax revenues over five years.

Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, a Broward-Palm Beach County legislator and member of the House-Senate Conference Committee on property taxes, said no one thinks repeating the same comment for the umpteenth time is going to change a colleague's mind.

"The people who speak in this committee are not just talking to each other. They are trying to communicate a message" to the public, he said.

The public relations efforts go far beyond the rhetoric.

The House Republicans have been benefiting from a publicity machine, including a group created to push their message, a Web site and a made-for-television rally recently on the steps of the Old State Capitol.

Nearly absent on the public relations front is the Senate, which has offered more modest property tax reductions, but, unlike the House, doesn't want to increase the sales tax. The efforts on behalf of the House plan prompted Geller to suggest a similar Senate effort. "The Senate PR machine has not been able to match the massive House offensive," he said.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, quickly ruled it out. "The answer is no," he said, adding that the Senate's priorities, unanimously backed by the 40 senators, would stand on their own merits. "The only machine we need is good public policy," he said. "The cream rises to the top."

No one knows what will end up in the final package. Typically in Tallahassee, major policy differences lead to a compromise, which could mean total tax cuts over five years somewhere between the House's $40 billion to $45 billion and the Senate's $15 billion to $20 billion. That's roughly where Crist's $34 billion plan falls.

But all the posturing has helped stoke the public's interest in the issue, and leading members of both parties agree people will see results. "We are going to have some immediate tax relief. That's a given," Pruitt said Thursday.

Geller's assessment of the chances that property taxes won't be reduced: "No possibility, none, zero, zip, zilch."


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