Fla. Officials Are Barnstorming State To Whip Up Support for Tax Increase

By Karen Diegmueller — May 27, 1992 14 min read

Even the Governor’s allies give him little chance of success. Attorney General Butterworth puts the chances at less than 50 percent.

For the kickoff rally for an unprecedented state campaign, the symbol that confronts the audience here seems somewhat ominous--a “doomsday’’ clock, its hands bent, its numbers askew.

Also behind the podium at the Civic Center meeting this month is a green and white banner demanding, “Everyone Should Pay A Fair Share for Florida’s Future.’'

The first to speak is Lieut. Gov. Buddy MacKay, who warns the crowd that time is running out and that the state cannot wait any longer for the legislature to act of its own volition. Instead, he says, the assembled educators, government officials, and activists will have to go straight to the people with their message that taxes must be raised to pay for adequate state services.

A parade of state cabinet members, including the commissioner of education, the secretary of state, and the attorney general, follows with similar exhortations.

When the lieutenant governor returns to the microphone, he tells the audience about his teenage son, who, Mr. MacKay says, is bright but does not yet know who he is or what he wants to be.

“The issue facing Florida today is the same issue facing my 16-year-old son,’' says Mr. MacKay. “That is maturity.’'

Indeed, Mr. MacKay and other members of the administration of Gov. Lawton Chiles see their proposal for a $1.35-billion first-year tax increase, $600 million of which would go to education, as a turning point in the history of the Sunshine State. Given the expected resistance in the legislature, which begins a special session on the issue next week, Governor Chiles and his allies see their only hope in an intensive campaign to mobilize voter support.

With the backing of education, health-care, environmental, corrections, and social-services organizations, state officials have set about trying to overcome public opposition to higher taxes, which has only gotten stronger during the recession.

In doing so, advocates of a tax hike are emphasizing the plight of the schools, which have been hard hit by a combination of funding cuts and burgeoning enrollments.

Volunteers are circulating petition cards throughout the state, asking residents to sign and return them so that lawmakers can witness the support for a restructured tax base.

Florida cabinet members, led by Education Commissioner Betty Castor, are crossing the state, appealing to newspaper editorial boards and others for support.

A ‘Fourth-Rate State’

Heading up the campaign is Mr. Chiles, who is staking much of the political prestige he has built up over a total two decades of service as Governor and U.S. Senator.

Governor Chiles argues that more money needs to be pumped into state services because the state ranks first nationally both in violent crime and in the high-school-dropout rate.

“Those kinds of figures classify Florida as a fourth-rate state’’ that cannot compete, he tells audiences.

In 1990, Mr. Chiles upset the Republican incumbent, Gov. Bob Martinez, by traversing the state, building support at the grassroots level, and eschewing campaign contributions from special interests.

The tactics that were successful for him then have been dusted off for his offensive for his “fair share’’ budget.

Unveiled May 11, the fair-share budget is the third spending plan for fiscal 1993 to be presented by the Chiles administration.

Last fall, Mr. Chiles submitted two budgets. One, which he called the “reality’’ budget, called for no new taxes and showed all the cuts that would have to be made if it were adopted. The other, dubbed the “investment’’ budget, sought a revenue increase of $1.35 billion, $600 million of it to be used for education.

The Democratic-majority legislature passed the reality budget, but Mr. Chiles promptly vetoed it.

Now the Democratic Governor and all but one member of the cabinet, which is elected, are taking the political risk of lobbying for a tax increase during a legislative election year.

Mr. Chiles “has demonstrated a willingness to shake Tallahassee upside down,’' says Representative Douglas L. Jamerson, the chairman of the House public-schools committee. “Now that he has had a chance to look at the budget [he realizes] it is bereft at running a new Florida at old Florida revenues.’'

Mr. Chiles is one of a handful of governors who are attempting to cultivate public support for higher taxes in the face of the deep cuts in state services forced by the recession. (See related story.)

Backlash Ahead?

Recent experience suggests that governors can pay a heavy price for pushing tax increases. Both Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut and Gov. James J. Florio of New Jersey have seen their popularity plummet as a result.

In an interview, however, Mr. Chiles predicted that his efforts will meet a different response.

“I don’t think there will be the backlash afterwards,’' Mr. Chiles said. There will be no retaliation, he said, because he spent his first year in office cutting the fat out of state government before seeking a tax increase.

“The same teachers who are out there clapping for me now,’' he observed, “were out there ready to tar and feather me last year.’'

Governor Chiles has vowed to keep the legislature in Tallahassee beyond the end of the fiscal year on June 30 and well into the election season if necessary.

“If they do override, I can fight another day. I’m on the right side of this,’' the Governor said. “I’ll be there when they’re running,’' he promised, adding, “I’ll be talking to a new [crop] of legislators next year.’'

But the government is likely to come to a halt July 1 if there is no budget. Florida law bars the state from incurring debts and writing checks without a budget, according to State Comptroller Gerald Lewis.

Tax Cuts Included

On the spending side, Mr. Chiles’s earlier investment budget and his more recent fair-share budget are the same. They differ, however, on the revenue side. The latter proposal seeks to win support from middle-class voters by coupling tax hikes with tax cuts.

The fair-share plan calls for expanding the list of goods and services subject to the sales tax. It also would lift the tax exemptions from several categories of corporations.

In return for raising these additional revenues, the fair-share proposal would roll back the existing sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent on all but tourist-related items.

The plan also calls for halving the property taxes of homes with assessed values of less than $150,000. The property-tax cut requires a constitutional amendment, which would be put before the voters in November.

State officials believe the fair-share budget will be more politically palatable to some lawmakers who shied away from the previous plan. Under the fair-share budget, legislators can tell their constituents they voted to raise some taxes but voted to lower others, notes Ms. Castor.

After the first year, the plan would raise an estimated $2.5 billion annually in new revenues.

Right For Real People

Trailing Mr. Chiles on his way towards the podium as he launches the fair-share campaign is an entourage of “real people.’'

The Governor introduces people he has met on his travels around the state: Bernice Howser, a 96-year-old from Tallahassee who has been able to stay out of a nursing home because she receives homemaker services; an 8th grader from Pinellas County; a recovered drug addict and high-school dropout who turned his life around after receiving drug treatment; a Tampa businessman; an Orlando foster-care family; and the Tallahassee police chief.

All rely on public services that the Governor says are in jeopardy without additional revenue.

The budget the legislature passed before it adjourned “epitomized the old politics,’' says Mr. Chiles. “Some legislators called it a ‘bare bones’ budget, some called it a ‘no new taxes’ budget. I called it garbage,’' he says.

“For too long, the powerful have enjoyed a free ride,’' he contends, noting how lobbyists are already mobilizing to fight the tax plan.

“We’re mad as hell. We’re not going to take it anymore,’' he vows.

To buttress his arguments, Mr. Chiles cites statistics that are so startling that audiences throughout the state ask him to repeat to make sure they have heard correctly. A consumer who rents a car pays a 15 percent tax, for example, while none is required on a $50-an-hour limousine rental. Nearly 94 percent of the businesses in the state pay no corporate taxes, he notes.

Even if there was no fiscal crisis, Governor Chiles says, the system requires fixing because “It’s the right thing to do.’'

A Legacy of Cuts

If the campaign is successful, the biggest winner will be education.

Even the additional $600 million, however, will not make up the $1.2 billion education has lost in the past 18 months, says Ms. Castor.

While education funding has been cut, K-12 enrollment has been growing by about 100,000 a year.

Students will be taught in the most crowded classrooms in the state’s history, according to Ms. Castor. “Do we want that to be our legacy?’' she asks. “I don’t think so.’'

In Dade County (Miami), the largest school system in the state and the fourth-largest in the nation, officials anticipate a $98.5-million cut, which will require laying off 700 teachers and increasing average class sizes to as high as 40 or more at the high-school level.

Pinellas County (St. Petersburg) schools are anticipating a $44-million budget cut next year on top of this year’s $16-million loss, while in Duval County (Jacksonville), about 500 teachers have gotten pink slips.

Also putting a strain on school finances is the doubling in the number of at-risk students during the past decade. Even so, Florida--whose overall population increased 32 percent during the 1980’s--will receive federal Chapter 1 compensatory-education funding based on 1980 Census data, as the result of a decision this year by U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

Also at risk is the Florida Academic Scholarship program, which guarantees every high-school student in the state who meets rigorous standards for grades, courses, and college-entrance exams a $2,500 college scholarship at an in-state school.

Next year, the state is cutting the scholarships to $2,000, and students fear that will be only the beginning.

“It’s like you’re doing a job and earning a salary and now they’re cutting it,’' says Laura Tillinghast, a junior at Chamberlain High School in Hillsborough County. “I just don’t think it’s fair at all.’'

At a meeting at Tampa’s H.S. Plant High School, student after student expresses similar anxieties. Students, parents, teachers, and politicians from Hillsborough County have come to talk and listen to the Governor, Ms. Castor, and Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth.

Asking for volunteers to help distribute the fair-share petition cards, Mr. Chiles proudly displays a large cardboard replica of one. It is signed by one of Florida’s most famous residents, Burt Reynolds.

Despite the excitement the actor’s signature produces in the crowd, it is the attorney general who brings the house down. “As the chief law-enforcement officer in Florida, I can tell you you’re damn right. The legislature did break a contract,’' he says.

No ‘Divide and Conquer’

While firmly committed to the fair-share campaign, education groups say they could have pursued another course, which would have protected the narrow interests of the schools at the expense of other programs.

Senate leaders tried to cut a deal with the teachers’ unions, offering education $400 million more, according to Jeff Wright, the president of the Florida Teaching Profession-N.E.A.

“We’re just not willing to do that anymore,’' says Mr. Wright. “You no longer can pit education against other service agencies.’'

Banking on the clout and finances of the powerful teachers’ unions, far less audible constituencies believe they have a better chance to gain funding for corrections, social services, health, and the environment.

Together they have formed the Coalition for Florida’s Future, which operates out of a storefront several blocks from the Capitol. “During difficult times, the state legislature practices a divide-and-conquer philosophy. We’re trying not to let that work this time,’' says Ida “Sam’’ Roberts, the group’s executive director.

Backers of the proposal emphasize the links between the services. They use the safety argument to sell the plan to senior citizens, for example, by pointing out that young people who are in school are not on the streets looking for mischief.

“We are not selling education or health spending,’' says Mr. Chiles. “We are selling the holistic problem.’'

Still, the strategy has proven to be tricky, especially when teachers’ livelihoods are at stake.

After Mr. Chiles gives his fair-share pitch at a school-board meeting in Jacksonville, angry parents blame mismanagement in Tallahassee for the lack of education funding.

“Don’t cut teachers. Cut anything but teachers,’' one parent pleads.

“The money is available,’' says another parent, but the politicians “are holding our teachers hostage.’'

The speakers are applauded wildly, even by teachers who wear yellow ribbons meant to symbolize that they are the hostages of another group--the Republican senators who have been the most ardent opponents of a tax hike.

“They don’t want services cut, but obviously they don’t want to pay more taxes--even the teachers,’' observes a union leader.

Hardball Politics

As some lawmakers began trickling back into Tallahassee last week for committee meetings, one legislative aide said that he had never witnessed such rancor, before the session had even begun.

In part, that can be traced to the tough talk of the cabinet and Governor on the stump.

“In the same way that Congress is paralyzed, I’m afraid our legislature is in the same position,’' Secretary of State Jim Smith says at a meeting with the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times.

“It’s the best job [lawmakers] ever had and they’re absolutely afraid they’re going to lose it,’' says Mr. Smith, a G.O.P. backer of the plan.

Many state officials attribute the legislature’s skittishness to the fact that lawmakers face re-election this fall in redrawn districts.

“I think a lot of the members are paralyzed by fear. They fear running in a new district,’' says Representative Jamerson.

Tension is also likely to mount over the next few weeks as the Florida Education Association/United and the F.T.P.-N.E.A. begin airing television commercials aimed at the “dirty dozen’’ senators most likely to stand in the way of any tax increases.

The ads show two pairs of hands counting out a pile of money, then another pair partially hiding a few dollars. Zeroing in on the fairness issue, the voice-over says that corporations get tax breaks paid for by average citizens. “That’s not fair,’' it intones.

Viewers are urged to call their senators, whose photographs, names, and phone numbers are shown.

The Representative Assembly of the F.T.P.-N.E.A. also has voted to withhold campaign funding from any legislator who does not vote for the fair-share budget, regardless of previous support of education.

Union officials are not entirely comfortable with either the ads or the PAC stance, Mr. Wright acknowledges. Shortly after an initial group of ads was aired, the union bought full pages in newspapers to thank legislators who had earlier voted for the Governor’s investment budget.

‘Not Even Close’

Despite the legions of volunteers, supporters and opponents question the Governor’s ability to succeed in the short 19-day legislative session.

Although few believe the House will deny the Governor’s request, the Senate is another matter. Democrats hold only a 21-to-19 edge, and several conservative Democrats are expected to join the Republicans in opposing the plan.

“There might be one out of every four votes in the Senate who would approve his plan. That is probably a generous figure,’' says Senator John Grant, a Republican.

On an up-or-down vote, “it won’t even be close,’' says a Democratic Senate aide.

Even the Governor’s allies give him little chance of success. Attorney General Butterworth puts the chances at less than 50 percent.

Newspaper editors say voter sentiment is running against the plan, if letters from their readers are any indication.

Observers attribute the weakness of the plan both to the short time frame and to miscalculations the Governor may have made when he preached about government waste during his first year in office. Residents, in fact, often pepper their conversations with talk of waste.

“In hindsight, maybe Lawton Chiles should not have gone around the state for the first year telling everybody everything was broke,’' says Comptroller Lewis.

In an interview, however, the Governor said he believes he is making progress. He said he has been meeting with small groups of businessmen, who are “the most hostile people I’ve ever seen.’'

After a long day with them, though, Mr. Chiles manages to change most minds. “We’re building converts every day,’' he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 27, 1992 edition of Education Week as Fla. Officials Are Barnstorming State To Whip Up Support for Tax Increase