Speaker pushes for change

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published  April 1, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - For House Speaker Marco Rubio, it was a rallying cry to abolish property taxes. But he sounded a little desperate.

Support for his plan to eliminate property taxes on primary homes and raise the sales tax was eroding fast, and Rubio was trying to salvage his signature issue.

"If this House doesn't put out bold ideas, no one will," he told his fellow Republicans.

For 15 minutes Tuesday, the 35-year-old House speaker from Miami issued an unmistakable challenge: "We will be judged on this session by what we do or fail to do on this issue."

Ignore the naysayers on editorial pages and the woe-is-me refrain from city and county commissioners, Rubio said, reading from prepared notes in a departure from his normal off-the-cuff style.

Rubio did not need to say what many already knew. It is he, more than anyone, who will be judged by the outcome of the property tax debate.

By striking fast with an ambitious plan, Rubio eclipsed Gov. Charlie Crist and the Senate as the face of change for Florida's tax system.

Now, as Rubio's plan encounters silence from a skeptical Senate and only polite encouragement from Crist, the speaker faces criticism that he reached too far, too fast.

"The risk of going for a home run is nothing happens," said Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, who opposes the Rubio plan because it would raise sales taxes by 2.5 cents per dollar. "I didn't get elected to vote for a tax increase."

The second youngest speaker in modern history, Rubio opened the 2007 session as the hotshot, second only to Crist in star power. Rubio was the guy with all the potential and a book brimming with ideas.

When he announced his property tax plan, he called it the most significant tax cut in Florida history, even as it included giving Florida the highest sales tax in the nation.

The frenetic pace at which the plan proceeded signaled Rubio intended to dominate the debate. The same morning he unveiled it, a House committee considered the legislation.

One of the few people who objected was a Polk County commissioner who just happened to be in Tallahassee.

Six weeks later, the plan lies in limbo, hobbled by relentless criticism. It has gone through several mutations, making it easier for Senate Republicans to criticize, even though they have yet to unveil their own plan.

Thirty rural counties were excluded from the plan's proposed tax rollback because House leaders were convinced it would crush their budgets. Hospital districts were spared, too.

Then, with county officials clamoring for more of a voice in the debate, Rubio announced the biggest change yet: Voters in each of Florida's 67 counties would decide how much more sales tax they would pay, and the beneficiaries would only be homeowners - not business owners, snowbirds or renters.

At that moment, the tepid Democratic support for Rubio's plan vanished.

"Once you start making great changes to your original proposal, sadly, people look at it and say, 'They don't have the support,' " said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

To control the damage, Rubio took the unusual steps of holding conference calls with lobbyists and Florida's congressional delegation.

The Republican Party created a Web site to promote his plan.

Stuck in traffic one morning, Rubio called a Miami radio talk show to deflect on-air criticism.

The legislation emerged from a House council last week, less than halfway through the 60-day session. But everything has come to a halt, and a new statewide poll shows lukewarm enthusiasm for Rubio's plan.

Rubio says there's no need to rush the House plan to a floor vote because the Senate hasn't revealed its tax ideas. But it's not clear he has the votes to win, especially since tax code changes require a statewide referendum and Rubio would need three quarters of the House to support putting the matter before voters.

"I think what they wanted to do was seize the day," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "Unfortunately in some of the situations ... they found themselves being plagued by what they tried to seize."

Still, King and others give Rubio credit for setting the tone for the property tax debate.

One of the clearest effects Rubio has had is on local government. His plan to roll back taxes would strip billions from their budgets. Some counties, including Hillsborough, have already moved to put caps on budget growth.

"He certainly sounded the alarm," said Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, who said the rollback would have devastating effects on local services.

A few days after Rubio made his speech to Republicans, he sat in his office and took a barrage of questions from reporters. Do you have enough support? When will the measure be put to vote?

There was a subtle difference in his posture, his response more nuanced than before.

"There are a number of proposals out there," Rubio said. "And I think what we need to do is examine all of them within the prism of our overriding goal, and that is ensure that the next time people in Florida get a property tax bill, it is a bill they can afford to pay."

Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, said Rubio deserves a lot of credit for provoking the debate.

"The fact that his plan won't be the final plan doesn't reflect poorly on him," Seiler said. "I actually think it's a lesson in the process. You're not going to get everything you want. Accepting that and moving on is probably going to make him a better speaker."