GOP candidates set out goals, throw some elbows

Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - It rained promises in Tallahassee on Tuesday: Billions of dollars in tax cuts. Smoother driving. Money for those who adopt children.
Sounds like the start of a campaign year.
The two Republican candidates for governor promised these things and many more Tuesday in dueling press conferences. In addition to assuring voters of a bright future, they also engaged in another campaign standard: accusations of dirty politics from the other.
Republicans Tom Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, and Attorney General Charlie Crist dished out their proposals within two hours of each other Tuesday.
Gallagher's was the more sweeping of the two, touching on everything from developing a post-Castro Cuba to lower fees for off-peak driving on toll roads to tax breaks for the development of alternative fuels.
But his centerpiece was a two-phase plan to cut property taxes.
The first would limit the increase of each county's annual revenue to the growth of population and inflation. Gallagher said counties were taking advantage of higher home values by spending more of the property tax windfall than necessary.
"Local government spending has grown out of control," Gallagher said, adding that had the limit been in place since 1999, counties would have spent $8 billion less in taxpayers' money.
But Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said such a cap won't work since construction costs alone for schools has increased almost 70 percent in the past few years.
"You have to be careful with a revenue cap when construction prices are exceeding population growth," he said.
Gallagher also proposed allowing homeowners who move within a county to keep their current property taxes at the new home. He said the threat of big increases in taxes for homeowners who want to move keeps families stuck in their homes.
Supporting Gallagher in the proposal was Orange County Property Assessor Bill Donegan, who said homeowners sick of maintaining swimming pools and cutting grass couldn't afford to move. Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, is among the Legislature's most ardent tax cutters. But he said Gallagher's proposal has problems since it exacerbates the inequality of property taxes. Longtime homeowners have enjoyed a 3 percent annual cap on property taxes while new homeowners in the same neighborhood must pay much more for houses of the same value.
Brummer, however, acknowledged the political popularity of such a proposal.
"There is no question that if this issue gets to the ballot it goes through like a dose of salts," Brummer said. "It's just like many other issues where it sounds good because you can cap an individual's taxes."
Gallagher's ardent conservative stances for this election contrast with 1994 support of a sales tax increase to build new prisons.
Gallagher said he was wrong then, and he's learned his lesson.
"I believe there is no problem in Florida that will justify raising taxes," he said Tuesday.
Crist briskly endorsed Gallagher's proposals, saying he would extend the tax break for homeowners to those who move to other counties as well.
Backed by dozens of supporters, Crist said he was creating nine "policy councils" to help him craft more detailed proposals.
Crist's lone solid proposal detailed Tuesday would give $3,000 to those who adopt children and $5,000 annually to families who adopt foster children. Crist added that he was not amenable to ending Florida's ban on gay adoptions.
Gallagher took a shot at Crist and the Democratic candidates for their advantage in collecting donations from trial lawyers. The battle between businesses seeking to restrain negligence lawsuits and trial lawyers claiming they hold businesses accountable is a litmus test for many Republicans.
"I'm the only candidate in this race that has not raised significant money from the plaintiffs bar," Gallagher said. "You can't claim to be pro-business and pro-plaintiffs lawyers without sounding noncredible." Crist brushed aside such criticism, saying he and Gallagher both support an effort this year in the Legislature to limit the liability of businesses in lawsuits.
"It's wrong," Crist said of Gallagher's statement. Gallagher also lashed out at recent newspaper stories related to his trading of stocks in companies that needed Cabinet approval in 2003 when Gallagher was a member of the Cabinet. The stories pointed out that his investments in a pipeline company seeking state approval coincidentally peaked before a number of decisions from the federal government. Gallagher said he had no inside knowledge of those federal decisions and blamed Crist supporters for planting the stories in the media. He called the accusations "totally wrong" and "over the line." Crist said nobody employed by his campaign had promoted the story on Gallagher's stock trading and that he couldn't control what other supporters might do on his behalf. "They're free agents. You or I can't control them. The first amendment lets them talk to who they want to," Crist said.

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