Taking The Initiative On Sales-Tax Exemptions

The Florida Legislature, it can be argued, keeps giving gridlock a really bad name. Think team mud-wrestling as a metaphor. Ironically, it’s been pretty much a bipartisan effort. At crunch time, Republicans can be counted on to treat Gov. Jeb Bush like a substitute social studies teacher.

But hope, however faint, hangs on. In fact, here is what it would take to create a legacy that was more deliberative than dysfunctional.

First, it would take a successful campaign to get the FAIR (Floridians Against Inequitable Rates) amendment on the November ballot. (I know, I know, we are turning representative government into a legislative bypass — and no wonder — but let’s leave that debate for another day.)

FAIR is no pregnant pig in a poke. It is the citizens’ initiative that would flat-out force the Legislature to get serious about tax reform, something it’s disinclined to do on its own. It would mandate that legislators take a fresh look at the state’s myriad sales-tax exemptions and vote them up or down. It could mean showing some accountability, staring down special interests and finally confronting a regressive tax code that ill suits an increasingly service-based economy.

It would allow legislators to defend a legitimate business exemption — and many are. But it would also smoke out those who are beholden to the loophole crowd — and many are.

There’s a reason that Florida now collects $17 billion in sales taxes — and exempts $23 billion.

This isn’t some Florida version of the class warfare that masquerades as tax debate in a presidential election year. This is about a sales tax structure that hasn’t changed in a half century. This is about a tax base that must be broadened to offset times of economic uncertainty — which are most times. It’s about not having to hold education, social services, transportation and various trust funds hostage to economic vagaries.

Simply adding another 700 sales-tax-paying newcomers a day is not enough. Soon the state will run out of one-time sources of revenue that help pay for ongoing programs.

Opponents of FAIR — and they are an influential bunch — are led by the governor. They see scrutinizing those exemptions as a thinly-veiled vehicle to higher taxes. Proponents say something must be done because those tax breaks — some 300 in total — are littered with inequities. They don’t think it’s fair, for example, to tax a fishing rod but not a charter fishing-boat rental. Dog food for the family pet is taxed, but feed for racing animals isn’t. A lot of professional services are exempt.

But first, FAIR has to get on the ballot. Then it has to pass. Then legislators have to show more guts than gall. That hat trick remains a long shot.

But it beats no shot. FAIR doesn’t have to mean Floridians Advancing Idiotic Rationales.

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