The Miami Herald

PIP added to session

Sidestepping a property-tax showdown, Gov. Charlie Crist decided Monday to add no-fault auto insurance to this week's special lawmaking session but said legislators would have to call a property-tax session of their own.

Crist's announcement skirted House Speaker Marco Rubio's ultimate request in an extraordinary Friday letter to the governor: To show ''leadership'' now and quickly take up the troubled property-tax plan that a judge last week struck from the Jan. 29 ballot because it was ``misleading.''

Rubio's letter was as much a show that he'll try almost anything for tax cuts as it was an apparent end-run around a reluctant Senate President Ken Pruitt, whose chamber is cautious when it comes to the tax-cut issue. Pruitt confirmed in a written statement Monday that he and Rubio will call a property-tax session later.

But though Crist said he'd like to see more tax cuts, he not only left the issue in the hands of the Legislature, he wouldn't give any specifics on what he wants. When asked during a press conference what he'd prefer, Crist bought some time by asking for some water.

''We'll do what's necessary,'' said Crist, declining to discuss specifics while spending more time praising Rubio, Pruitt and other legislators.

Assuming Rubio and Pruitt agree on property taxes, this will be the Legislature's fourth special session in addition to the spring regular lawmaking session.

Rubio, who along with Crist has raised expectations over big tax cuts, said in his letter Friday that the governor should help pressure the Legislature to take up property taxes before an Oct. 31 deadline to get the matter before voters on Jan. 29.

''I urge you to consider using your constitutional authority,'' the West Miami legislator wrote. ``We have reached a point where without your leadership, the urgent needs of Floridians will not be addressed.''

Last week, Leon Circuit Judge Charles Francis removed the proposed property-tax vote from the ballot, saying it was ''misleading'' because it suggested ''everyone'' would get more of a tax savings and didn't say that the popular Save Our Homes measure would eventually be phased out.

After the ruling, Senate President Ken Pruitt announced he would prefer to appeal the ruling in court and that the Senate wouldn't take up the matter during the budget-cutting special session that starts Wednesday. Pruitt, a budget stickler, said he wanted lawmakers to fully ''focus'' on the nearly $1 billion in cuts, though he agreed to take up a tax-cut issue that left Miami off a list of cities that should cut taxes the deepest.

Rubio said he wanted not only to take up the property-tax amendment, but perhaps call for bigger tax cuts -- something the Senate has opposed because senators worry about the effect on local governments' ability to provide local services.

Respecting the Senate's concerns, Crist sidestepped the property-tax issue. Many senators have said they support fixing the ballot language, but not much more.

Rubio, acknowledging the ''critical budget issues'' in a written statement, said he was ''encouraged'' that Crist and Pruitt ''are moving toward'' getting a property-tax measure on the January ballot.

But in contrast to the June special session on taxes, Democrats might not sign off on putting the matter before voters during the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot. Democrats say constitutional rules require the Legislature to pass another bill setting the election date. And if so, that would require the measure to pass by a three-fourths vote -- meaning four Democrats would need to sign off on getting the 30 votes needed in the Senate.

Recently, the national Democratic Party has confirmed it will nullify Democrats' votes in the presidential primary because the state scheduled its primary too early in the election season. That means fewer Democrats will likely show up to vote than expected.

''Jan. 29 is just a bad number for us,'' said Sen. Al Lawson, who will become the Democrats' leader in the chamber in 2009.

Another change since the June vote: The state budget is getting worse, and lawmakers are cutting spending across the board and trimming millions in education spending. The property-tax amendment, meantime, could take about $1 billion in property-tax money away from schools -- about the same amount kicked in by the lottery.

''We're concerned about having a vote that could decimate the education system's funding,'' said House Democratic leader Dan Gelber, who said his caucus needs to discuss when it would prefer to see the tax issue voted on. Republicans need 12 Democrats in the House to get the matter on the Jan. 29 ballot. Otherwise it would go on the general-election ballot in November 2008.




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