Tax plans limping along at Capitol

Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - What had been one of the most raucous and public debates on a major issue has become muted and secretive as discussions on how to cut property taxes were kept behind closed doors Monday.

With the end of this year's legislative session on Friday, lawmakers could be planning an astounding agreement after negotiations halted last week due to huge philosophical differences.

But they may also be planning when they'll come back to the Capitol so they can fulfill promises to cut property taxes this year.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, are now in charge of hashing out a deal by Friday's deadline.

Asked what he would tell voters who were antsy for a tax break plan by the end of this week, Pruitt said, "Hope. Be optimistic.''

That's been Crist's standard response as well, but even he has begun offering a disclaimer of sorts.

"I know it can be done this week. Whether it is or not remains to be seen,'' he said.

Rubio and House Republicans are supporting the so-called tax swap that would result in cuts of local government budgets, with resulting property tax cuts for Floridians, of $35 billion or more if sales taxes could be increased by up to 2.5 cents.

Senators and Crist have refused to consider raising the sales tax and have offered tax cuts that aren't as deep without corresponding severe cuts for local governments. There was no sign that rift was being closed on Monday.

"Apparently there's talking going on, I'm just not sure if anyone's listening,'' said House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "I think they're taking a breath to see if anyone's going to reload or not.''

Rubio said it was getting too late in the session to consider any drastically different tax cut plans.

But one seemed to arise in a sneaky manner Monday with the sudden consideration of a bill to allow video gambling machines in nine of the state's existing dog and horse tracks in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties as well as in facilities in the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville areas.

Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, claimed the 50 percent tax rate on the machines would generate up to $1 billion a year that would be shared among the counties and municipalities located near the tracks and the state's schools.

Rivera said that by offering up hundreds of millions of dollars to lower the amount each county in the state would have to contribute to public schools, it would provide for a tax cut.

Lawmakers were surprised by the move and had less than an hour to review the proposal.

"It certainly is a bit disappointing that the bill came about at such a late date,'' said Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda.

Nathan Dunn, a lobbyist for the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, called it a "significant, if not the largest, expansion of gambling in Florida's history.''

The move by the House may have been little more than a conciliatory gesture to senators who favor expanding gambling options in Florida.

Rubio, a staunch opponent of gambling, said he didn't support adding the video gambling machines around the state.

And he was quick to signal that the unusual consideration of the bill had nothing to do with finding additional tax revenues to offset other property tax cuts.

"It's not part of any deal or plan or anything of that nature,'' Rubio said.

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