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Fla. Governor Seeks Record $1.35-Billion Tax Hike

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Only a few weeks after the Florida legislature closed a $622-million gap in the current year's state budget, Gov. Lawton Chiles has asked lawmakers to expand the sales-tax base to pump additional funding into education and other programs in fiscal 1993.

The $1.35-billion tax increase, which would be the largest in Florida history, would give education an additional $600 million in the coming year. Included in the budget request are funds to be used to phase in programs for preschoolers and dropouts.

Under the Governor's proposal, public-school teachers would receive pay raises of approximately 2 percent, or $600 each.

About 12 percent of the money would be applied to the state's higher-education system, enabling an estimated 5,000 more students to attend state universities.

The drive to increase state aid follows a year in which $2 billion was cut to balance a budget afflicted by declining revenues. The last cuts were ordered during a special legislative session in December.

"The easiest way for me to describe the nearly $2 billion in cuts that we made to the budget is to say $1 billion tightened our belt in many areas that needed it, but the last $1 billion came out of the hides of our people," Mr. Chiles said in his Jan. 14 State of the State Address.

"Many of our teachers, our health workers, our parents, and even our schoolchildren asked for help immediately, but, as painful as it was, we had to fix the system before we could ask for more money ," Mr. Chiles said.

Taxes Proposed

To carry out his "Investing in Florida" plan, Governor Chiles proposed levying taxes on such goods and services as cable television, dry cleaning, and others that have long enjoyed tax-exempt status.

He also called for imposing some new corporate taxes.

Unlike a controversial tax package passed by the legislature in 1987, however, the sales tax would not touch advertisers, lawyers, and other professionals. Those groups lobbied successfully to kill that measure only months after it was adopted. Nevertheless, the Governor's call for new taxes is likely to face major political obstacles.

"Seldom is there a good time to raise taxes. There are times when it is worse than others. This appears to be one of those," said Dominic M. Calabro, the president of Florida WaxWatch, a taxpayers' group.

Mr. Calabro cited polls showing that Floridians had little confidence in their state government and believed that further spending cuts could be made before direct services would be affected.

Lottery 'Hoax' Targeted

Addressing the issue of public mistrust of government, Mr. Chiles called for returning the state lottery to its original purpose of providing funds for educational enhancement. Although proponents of the lottery persuaded Florida voters to pass the measure with the promise that the proceeds would be used only for school-improvement efforts, the legislature has diverted some of the lottery funds to regular state education aid.

Mr. Chiles proposed to "buy back" the state lottery over a five-year period with funds generated by levying a gross-receipts tax on some exempted goods and services.

"The lottery hoax is choking in [the public's] craw and it galls their gizzards," said Mr. Chiles. "They feel bamboozled--sold a bill of goods."

The budget presented by Mr. Chiles this month is actually the second one that he has proposed for fiscal 1993. The first one, unveiled in November, did not incorporate a tax-increase package.

The Governor's initial budget cut education funding by $53.16 per student below the 1992 level.

A key lawmaker last week hailed the Governor's decision to put forward a new fiscal plan that was more favorable to education.

"What the Governor proposes is certainly much better than what we have now," said Representative Douglas L. Jamerson, the chairman of the House Public Schools Committee. "The Governor's dollars would not bring us back to a continuation budget, but they will allow us to put our finger in the dike."

'Uncommon Courage' Praised

Members of the education community also praised the direction in which Mr. Chiles was moving with his new sot of proposals.

"Governor Chiles is beginning to exercise the leadership necessary to meet Florida's needs," said Pat Tornillo, the president of the Florida Education Association/United.

"He is on the right track," Mr. Tornillo said, while adding that "a genuine investment in our children and the future will demand reaching further than this budget."

John Ryor, the executive director of the Florida Teaching Profession N.E.A., commended Mr. Chiles, noting, "To step forward and propose $1.35 billion worth of new taxes does mark a degree of courage that is relatively uncommon in these times."

But, Mr. Ryor added, the additional funding will not enable the schools to stay even, given the state's explosive growth in K-12 enrollment, which is projected to rise by 84,000 and 89,000 for the next two school years.

Using the state's estimated average per-pupil cost of $4,248, more than half of the proposed funding increase would be eaten up by new school arrivals.

Mr. Ryor also acknowledged that winning legislative approval of a tax increase in an election year will be difficult. "This is going to be swimming upstream," he said.

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