"Ready, fire, aim"

Is it possible to get Florida's tax structure any more screwed up? Yes.

There seem to be as many tax reform proposals as there are legislators in Tallahassee these days, so many that it's dizzying even to the most experienced political observer.

Get rid of all property taxes. Get rid of some property taxes. Raise sales taxes. Expand the sales tax so it applies to a whole bunch of exempted services and goods. Collect the uncollected sales taxes on Internet purchases. The Legislature has ideas. The governor has ideas. The Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission has ideas. The crazy neighbor who lives down the street from you has ideas. You get the picture.

About the only thing I haven't heard yet is a call for a Florida flat tax. That's next week.

So let's do basics on Florida taxes. The state gets 77 percent of its tax revenues from taxing something you consume, either through the 6-7 percent sales tax (depending on which county you live in) to the specialized excise taxes on gasoline, cigarettes, liquor and such.

That is an awfully high percentage, among the highest in the nation. Of course, we have a tourist economy, so it makes some sense to jack the Canadians or Midwesterners or Japanese for some of the money we need to run our government.

But it is not the sales tax that has created the current tax revolt. It is a tax on our wealth, in the form of property taxes. Especially galling is that over the past five years, as real estate speculators drove property values skyward, local governments who collect property taxes kept the windfall without cutting back tax rates.

So we now come to the latest, greatest fix for our tax problem. The aforementioned taxation reform commission has given tentative approval to a ballot proposal that would stop funding Florida's public schools through property taxes in exchange for a penny increase in the sales tax. If the commission gives it final approval, you will see it on the ballot in November.

I suspect this plan will have some appeal. Local school taxes generally make up more than 25 percent of a homeowner's property tax bill. Sales taxes are sneakier; you pay a few pennies here, a few pennies there, so nobody much minds. Plus, as a consumption tax, you can opt to spend less and therefore be taxed less.

But in our usual fashion, our rush for a political solution may have us poised to do more harm than good.

As Dominic Calabro of Florida TaxWatch puts it: "Ready, fire, aim."

As an example, the executive director of one of Florida's more respected think tanks points out that conventions coming to Florida under a new 1-penny-higher sales tax will find themselves paying as much as 8 percent plus another 3-4 percent for hotel bed taxes. That 11 percent surcharge for meeting in Florida could prove tough on our hospitality industry.

"The bottom line is at a minimum it's probably not really good for the economy," Calabro said. "Florida puts most of its eggs into the consumption tax. You've got to be careful about overloading that wagon. You don't want to make such a monumental move without evidence that it will help the economy."

No such evidence exists.

The Tax Watcher didn't even go into my biggest beef with the idea: The so-called tax swap actually results in $5 billion less for education annually. The Legislature would have to find that extra money to replace those lost revenues. Given how trustworthy that body is in doing the right thing for our state [sarcasm alert], that should not be a problem.

If anything, we should be pumping another billion or two into public education in this state, along with reforms that work, unlike the A+ plan and its false idols of FCAT testing and pseudo-accountability.

For Calabro, the quest for the perfect tax system — one that is adequate for the needs of the state and fair to its residents — is a nearly impossible one.

"There's no system that's adequate," he said. "Every spending study says there's not enough money. ... for the appetites of some groups.

"Is it fair?" he continued. "Fair in whose eyes? Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder; tax fairness is in the eyes of the voters."

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