It was May 2006 in Miami Florida. A citizens forum was concluding. The topic: Coping with excessively high property taxes.
Gloria Alvarez(not her real name)had finished the two-hour session with a painful confession: She had sold her engagement ring to help cover the $7100 property tax bill. When she explained that her middle class home had drawn an assessment of $301,500, gasps were plainly heard in the audience.
A minor government official exclaimed, "I feel your frustration." Then she added that if taxes were not collected, city and county officials would be forced to take wage and benefit cuts. Furthermore, basic services such as garbage collection would go unfunded.
Another voice pointed out that their neighbor's property tax tab was "less than one-third" of their own. The official gamely suggested that the neighbor had likely lived there longer and had better taken advantage of "Save Our Homes," the Florida property tax law which places a cap on increases year-to-year.
2006 became 2007. First, Governor Charlie Crist proposed a plan that doubled the basic homestead exemption(from $25,000 to $50,000) and extended "portability" to homeowners. This allowed homeowners to move, taking their "save our homes" credit with them. In other words, if you had originally purchased your home for $150,000 and it now was assessed at $250,000, you would still pay your property taxes based on the original purchase amount, less the exemption, plus 3% annual increase. It was complicated and drew notable criticism. Those opposed pointed out that it "perpetuated an inequitable system."
Then House Speaker, Marco Rubio proposed an alternative. "Let's raise the sales tax 2.5% on everything except food and medicine and eliminate the property tax for homesteaders," he proffered. In Rubio fashion, the plan was straight forward and easy to understand. His argument was simple: "20% of sales tax is paid by tourists, 5% is paid by undocumented workers."
Realtors and bankers got excited. So did Florida residents. True, the exemption would apply only to Florida residents. And, it would apply only to their actual residence. Second homes, investment property, commercial property would not be affected. Rubio's argument cut to the quick: "We cannot tax people out of their homes. If people want to buy a car or a flat screen TV, they will pay more sales tax. But we will not allow government to force people on fixed incomes to move."
Opponents were quick to say, "the money doesn't add up." Rubio defended his plan by admitting that "any shortfalls will be made up with cuts in salaries and benefits for government employees." Then he went down the list of lavish salaries, perks, expenses and benefits received by city and county employees. The public became outraged. He also identified a little known fact: ten cents of every dollar paid into the state coffers was used to hire lobbyists. The public became even more incensed.
Rubio's "tax swap" flew through the Florida House of Representitives. With a Senate also controlled by Republicans, a Republican Governor and 75% of the population in favor of the plan, passage looked imminent. Instead, the Senate submitted a different plan. This "alternative" was given full blessing by Senate President, Ken Pruitt. It offered nothing close to the relief that Rubio had proposed. In fact, the reduction amounted to practically nothing. At best it was "token" relief. It was as if the "pain" had fallen on deaf ears! What had happened?
Ken Pruitt and many of his Senate co-horts were R.I.N.O.S.- Republicans in Name Only. They had looked at Rubio's plan, considered it a consumption tax, a "regressive tax" and dismissed it. Never mind that three-fourths of Floridians favored it! Pruitt and his pals knew best. They were very comfortable working with Senate Democrats to conceive a "bi-partisan" plan. House members, typically 10-years younger than Senate members were mystified. Why were they so willing to scrap a plan that attacked the problem so decisively? Did they not feel the pain of the homeowners? Did they not understand that people were being taxed out of their homes unjustly?
Evidently they didn't. In their estimation, it was too much lost revenue for government. There was concern that schools would be underfunded. Basic services might need to be cut. Cost of living increases for city and county employees would not be met. There was a worry that pension benefits might be compromised. The idea of pay freezes for city and county workers was considered "draconian."
Rubio and supporters acknowledged that "these arguments they had expected; from Democrats!" But who were these Republicans? And were they real Republicans? Recognizing the stalemate, Governor Crist eased his plan through the House and Senate. It allowed homeowners to move without forfeiting their "save our homes" accrual. It offered only token help to most Floridians. It did not prevent the Florida housing meltdown.
In retrospect, we now know that had Rubio's plan been adopted, many homeowners would have averted foreclosure. At the time of proposal, the Governor called the Rubio plan "intriguing." During the Senate campaign he called it "wacky."
Rubio should be credited for drawing clear distinction between real Republicans and RINOS. Never calling Crist by name, he constantly referred to him as "the Arlen Specter wing of the Republican party." Yet when it came down to it, GOP national sent Charlie Crist five million dollars.
Mitch McConnell, Lamar Alexander and the brass suggested to now Senator Rubio that he "run for Attorney General." They were only interested in holding the seat. Making certain that their choice truly reflected conservative values was secondary. Charlie Crist looked more electable. Were they ever wrong! Perhaps both men had been inside the beltway too long. They were blindsided by a reality. Not the conventional "RINO Reality!" Voters want leaders who stand for something!
This reality is new and much more powerful. It is a wind that is blowing in America. It is saying, "we are on to you guys!" No more, "Republicrats and Democans." Take a position! We need no more "trimmers!"
Today, you hear John Huntsman talking about appealing to a broader base of people through more moderate views. Is he talking about moderation? Or is he doing a Ken Pruitt? As in attempting to "out Democrat the Democrats."
"Broadening the tent" has been on the lips of Republican leaders for years. But how do you "broaden the tent?" To a John Huntsman type, it means that you "find middle ground with moderate Democrats in route to bi-partisanship." But is this the only way?
Many low income independents and "blue collar" Democrats see a different path toward "increasing the size of the tent." It's called "reducing the size and cost of government." To a family of four with a household income of $40,000, Rubio's plan would have meant a savings of roughly $4000 per year. This was based on the assumption that they owned a modest home in a lower middle class neighborhood. Could they have lived without some services? Probably. Were they concerned about pension and benefit cuts for city and county employees? Absolutely not! In the eyes of these voters, city and county employees were earning 50% more than they were; while enjoying superior benefits.
Many members of the party hierarchy stress that the party must not "lean to far to the right." But what is "too far to the right." Does that translate to "lean too far from the norm?"When we discuss "reducing the size and cost of government," we are talking change. To pigeonhole this change as "right wing" may be a distortion. Low income independents coming from households that earn $30,000 per year, do not consider eliminating the EPA "far right" if it results in a $22 per hour job on a gas well. A family farmer aspiring to start a cannery does not consider restricting FDA "right wing" if it means that he can proceed without government interference.
Allowing Americans to keep their own money has been demonized. It is, as if, government has a divine right to live better, control more and ultimately oversee the lives of the American people. It goes back to a culture of "government knowing best." To counter this, Republicans must identify the "wolves in sheep skin." If they are counter to the philosophy of"reducing the size and scope of government," they are not our friend. It makes little sense to waste time, and money on them.