Thursday, November 1, 2007

We need more attention on state politics

I've been focused on all the turmoil in Tallahassee for the past several months, but, in the back of my mind (and, apparently until now, bottom of my priority list) I've been itching to write a post about progressive blogs in Florida. So here goes.

I'm disappointed in the so-called "Florida blogosphere." The reason why comes down to something Ken Quinnell admitted at the Netroots Conference at the Democratic State Convention: Few blogs focus on, or even cover, state politics. It's bizarre, I think, that so much has been going in Tallahassee this year, but that there has been little coverage or comment by "Florida" blogs. Republicans in the statehouse have been running this state to the ground with autocratic, partisan politics and pushing for billions and billions of dollars in tax cuts even while the state faces a budget shortfall. These are classic Republican issues, and you'd think the progressives and Democrats in this state who are interested and involved in politics enough to write blogs would rise to the challenge.

Let me start by describing what I mean by "state politics." You may remember from a high school civics class that our government comes in three tiers - local, state, and national. You may also remember that there's a lot of overlap between them, which doesn't make clearly defining state politics any easier. Local politics is, I think, better represented in Florida blogs than the state level. State politics involves the state legislature, cabinet, governor, and state bureaucracy. National politics is about the President, his administration, Congress, and the Supreme Court. A lot of Florida blogs, especially the "Candidate Watch Network," focus on local congresspeople - they, and their campaigns, are involved in national, not state, politics. Immigration, the war, S-CHIP - thats all national politics, despite whatever stance a "local" congressperson takes on it. The Florida primary dispute is also national politics: although it started off in the state legislature with Republicans pushing the primary date forward, once Florida Democrats started fighting with the DNC and other early primary states, that's national level politics.

Let me give you an example of what I mean when I say that Florida blogs avoid state politics. The two special sessions, one for cutting the budget and one for cutting taxes, pretty much took up the whole month of October. The blog Change in Tallahassee had 62 posts the whole month. TWO of them had to do with the special sessions, and only a couple more had anything to do with state politics. Like most "Florida" blogs, it focused on Congress, the President, and the presidential campaign. Bear in mind that these are rough numbers, and my intention isn't accurate statistics but to convey a trend. Florida Kossacks had five posts in October, none of them about the special session, and in fact, none of them about state level politics at all. Miami-Dade Dems had 36 posts, none about the special session, and none about state level politics. Smashed Frog had 25 posts, none about either the special session or state level politics. The FPC blog had 59 posts (not including radio shows or announcements for them, or "stories to read" posts), of which 13 dealt with state level politics - 5 of those about the Democratic convention, and 3 as part of Mark Weaver's series of posts. Three of those blogs (FPC, Smashed Frog, and Change in Tallahassee) were nominated as "best state blog" in the recent Florida Netroots awards. Again, those numbers are all rough counts, and whether or not a post counted as "state level politics" was based on whether it dealt with the governor, cabinet, legislature, or a state level campaign. I also want to mention that my intention is to critique these blogs in terms of how often they deal with actual state politics, not on quality, usefulness, etc.

To approach this from a different angle, the FPC set up three blogs specifically to track state level politics. Florida House Watch has 2 posts in total, none posted during October. Florida Senate Watch has 4 posts, none from October. Florida Cabinet Watch also only has 4 posts, but two of those are from the beginning of October, and are about the special session. Ken tells me that anyone can contribute to them, and to send him an email if you're interested (and you should! The House, Senate, and Cabinet need to be watched by critical bloggers!)

Can you see my point? The "big" Florida blogs aren't, or are hardly, covering state politics, and blogs set up for that purpose aren't getting attention or interest.

I want to point out that Florida Netroots has done a great job keeping track of the legislature through the special session, and Pushing Rope also posts about state politics pretty frequently. My blog, Praxis, is dedicated entirely to commentary on state politics.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of state politics. National politics has more mindshare, but less impact on people's daily lives. Most public policy that effects your life is enacted and enforced at the state level, even if it's a national issue or law. As an example, take S-CHIP. Most of the blogs I described above had a large number of posts about the ongoing S-CHIP debate between the parties in Congress and the President. In Florida, S-CHIP, the federal program, is run by the state and is called KidCare. Sound familiar? You may remember that Alex Sink, among others, pushed hard over the summer for KidCare reform to be included in the recent special sessions - because KidCare is underfunded in Florida! While expanding the federal rules for S-CHIP is good idea, the fact of the matter is that Florida doesn't take advantage of the program as it is. Even if all the effort and energy put out by Florida bloggers to convince/coerce Florida Republican Congresspeople to override Bush's veto had succeeded, little or nothing would have changed in Florida. Involvement in state politics, on the other hand, and pushing for the statehouse to fully fund KidCare (and therefore be eligible for more money from the federal government) could, on the other hand, actually result in more kids in Florida with health insurance.

Just as important as the role of state politics in our lives is the fact that state politics is more accessible than national politics. By that I mean, involvement in state politics is more likely to result in actual changes in state policy than similar involvement in national politics. You could look at it as a simple matter of numbers - you're one of 18 million Floridians, versus one of 300 million Americans. Successfully influencing one of 120 state representatives is going to have a bigger impact on policy than influencing one of 435 representatives in Congress.

So, again, state politics both has a bigger impact on your life than national politics and you can have a bigger impact on it.

Come on folks! Blog about state issues! Blog about state politics! Hold state representatives accountable for their votes just like you want to hold congresspeople accountable for theirs!

I'm not writing this just to lecture at you - I know a good way for you to start getting involved in state politics too. There's a rumor (*cough*straight out of Rubio's mouth*cough*) that there's going to be yet another special session before the next regular session in March. The purpose? to cut the budget, again. As this article points out, the state still has a $2.3 billion shortfall, even after last month's budget cuts. Remember what they cut then? Education and health care, mostly. Transportation and business incentives were kept safe. Well, what do you think they're going to cut next time?

The Democrats in the House are probably going to (or at least, should) offer up their own set of cuts, cuts which will hold services and education harmless. They need to have a list of the ridiculous budget items Republicans would rather not look at. The best example I can think of is the $491 million dollar CSX project in Orlando (check out the end of this article for details). Another one is the $80 million Rubio wants to give the the University of Miami. Those two alone add up to a quarter of the shortfall.

So, can you folks help me find more?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What the hell is going on in Tallahassee?

Well, right now, nothing official. The special session is still on, but lawmakers are at home doing their day job until Thursday. Meanwhile, in "back rooms," Senate and House leaders are negotiating some kind of compromise. Good luck! If you look at a break down of the various elements of each plan, you can see that there a number of things that the Senate and House agree on - working waterfront protections, tangible personal property exemption, affordable housing breaks, and, the big one, portability. The disagreements are pretty major though: fundamentally different homestead exemption expansions, assessment caps, and local control of taxes. I wonder if negotiators will play mix and match, or try to scale down the more ambitious House plan.

Let's take a step back. How did we get here?

The special session started much like the last few - the leadership had worked out a plan, and was prepared to ram it through within a few days. This session was different in two ways, however. First, the subject, tax cuts, is Rubio's pet project (check out this analysis of Rubio's motivations for pushing an ambitious plan), and second, Democrats actually have power over the process due to the 3/4ths majority requirement for a constitutional amendment. Now, the Senate went along with the original plan, which everyone called "Crist's plan" back then, because Pruitt didn't want to rock the boat, and Geller, the Democratic Minority Leader, had been wooed by Crist to support the plan. Remember that Crist ironed out the plan with Geller's help back during the budget cutting process. So the Senate debated the plan and amendments last week, and amendments that would have modified Crist's plan to look more like what the House has come up with were voted down, narrowly in some cases. I think Geller's support of Crist's original plan was the crucial element in keeping the Senate "on track." This happened last Wednesday - after the final vote, the Senate packed up and went home, with Senate leaders making huffy statements about what was going on in the House.

On the same day, House bigwigs retreated into the "back rooms" and negotiated a compromise plan between Republicans and Democrats. Thats how the "House plan" emerged. This was prompted by sudden and unexpected developments the day before - when a Democrat, Rep. Saunders, unexpectedly and without consulting Democratic leadership offered an amendment to put a 7% cap on all nonhomesteaded property. He had pushed for something similiar in the past. This was apparently a ploy by Republicans, who baited Saunders to offer the amendment, and then immediately jumped on it, counter-proposing a 3% cap instead. All of this was done without warning or analysis. You can sense the bewilderment in the blog postings about the vote.

The negotiations Wednesday between House leaders produced the current House plan, which borrows heavily from the Democratic tax plan from the last regular session. The 3% cap was adjusted to 5% on nonhomesteaded residential and commericial property as soon as Republicans realized how big a cut 3% would be. The assessment cap is an interesting idea, and, I think, worth more analysis. I'll get to that later.

The Senate leadership was not happy with this new plan from the House, which was approved Monday 108-2. Pruitt and Webster complained that the House "broke the deal." Crist is being completely two-faced (the newspapers are saying "diplomatic") on the issue, both supporting the Senate plan, and not not supporting the House plan.

Okay, so that's background. Let's get into the issues.

I agree completely with Troxler about the Senate complaint that the House "broke the deal." Who cares what the deal was? The deal was an arbitrary compromise worked out in secret. It ought to change as lawmakers offer suggestions and alternatives. Which, surprisingly, is exactly what happened in the House. Now, I think it's a perfectly legitimate argument to say that the House plan hasn't been studied thoroughly, and probably has loopholes and unintended consequences. But bashing it for not following a script reveals the kind of politics Pruitt and Webster want to play.

Personally, I've really enjoyed watching the special session unfold - it's been pretty entertaining. I'm more fond of the House plan than I ought to be, because, by accepting Democratic input, the House leadership is taking a step in the right direction of playing bipartisan politics. But, as I said before, the plan need to be studied and analyzed seriously before trying to put it in the state constitution.

If you read this blog regularly (as regularly as one can with such irregular updates, I mean), you know that I think that the property tax problem in Florida isn't caused by tax rates, but by the way property is assessed. Save Our Homes has thrown things out of whack, and the highest and best use assessment requirement exaggerates that problem for commercial properties. The House plan takes a step in the right direction on that. First, the working waterfront tax break removes the highest and best use assessment requirement for properties on the water's edge. Thats not the same thing as removing highest and best use on all property, but its getting there. The Senate plan also has a working waterfront break, but it's narrower and probably won't help motels, tiki huts, bait shops, and the like.

The assessment cap of 5% is what I really have my eye on. Democrats originally proposed a 7% cap, which Republicans countered with a 3% one, and now its at 5%. Its amazing what a big difference there is between 3, 5, and 7 percent. At 3%, the plan would have choked local governments and completely screwed up Florida's tax system in just a few years. Complete disaster, I think. A 7% cap, on the other hand, is above the average growth of values, and so, at first glance, is worthless. However, the 7% cap would have prevented sudden massive rises in assessed value, and would give businesses the ability to predict taxes several years down the road - which is what they've been calling for for years now. The 7% cap is cautious but also fair and useful, and would not significantly affect local governments. The 5% cap mixes the pros and cons of the other two - it's a significant cut for local governments, will lead to problems down the road, but also helps out businesses and nonhomesteaded residents quite a bit.

5% is a good enough compromise from 3%, but I think nonhomsteaded residential property ought to be given a bit more of benefit (snowbirds and renters really deserve some relief) and business a bit less of a benefit. My plan would be 3% for homesteads, 4.5% for nonhomesteaded residential, and 6% for businesses. That, coupled with local autonomy over tax rates, would be a pretty sensible system.

Well, if you can't tell, I'm rooting for the House plan. But - only if there has to be a tax cut. The best scenario would be for the whole thing to fall apart, which seems pretty likely at this point, and for the tax debate to continue over the winter and into the regular session. The newspapers have been urging the legislature to wait for the tax commission to offer suggestions. I'm not quite as confident as the newspapers that the commission will have good ideas. The people on the commission were chosen by Crist, Pruitt, and Rubio, the same folks who have screwed up tax cuts the past three tries. Plus, some of them are real conservative ideologues. Still, I don't think there's any need to rush these tax cuts.

After all, I think Florida needs tax reform, not cuts.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Portability is not the answer

In the next couple of days, we should have a better understanding of what Crist's tax plan will be. I say "Crist's" because it looks like the Republicans leaders are going to let him run the show. Rubio can't afford to screw up AGAIN on taxes (as this Sun Sentinel opinion piece points out, he's already on strike two), so it looks like he's giving the torch to Crist. Regardless of whether the plan succeeds, Rubio will claim it didn't go far enough next regular session and push for his sales swap again. Plus, Crist needs the credit - he's got campaign promises to fulfill if wants to keep his astronomical ratings. It doesn't matter to him whether or not the plan suceeds either; he just needs to show he tried. On the other hand, it's good to see that he's willing to talk to Democrats about it, unlike his Republican friends.

So what is Crist's plan? There are several reports. SV Date (freshly transfered to the legislative beat and already causing trouble for the Republicans) has a write up that focuses on portability and doubling the homestead exemption; The Miami Herald has a somewhat different report, The Buzz has something else, and the Political Pulse also chimes in. You can see the common threads, but the details are different.

The important thing is that portability is the primary element of all of these plans. As explained by Date, portability would allow accrued savings from Save Our Homes to be transfered, but they would slowly phase out as the assessment of the property would grow by 8% instead of 3%, until it reaches what the assessed value of the property would have been if it was allowed to grow at 3% from the sale value of the property, at which point it would only grow 3% a year from there on out. Did I explain that right? Did you understand it? Somehow they've managed to come up with something even more convoluted than the super exemption/Save Our Homes choice. That is, if Date's report is right.

Lets assume it's correct. That would mean that long-term residents get a bonus exemption, which could be enormous - millions of dollars, potentially - that would slowly phase out until they're just left with their regular old Save Our Homes cap. Fine, that solves the "problem" of people being "locked" into their homes (realistically, people locked into their homes from assessment caps should make such a profit from the sale that it should mitigate the increased taxes of a new place). But - well, think about it. What if you move multiple times over the course of a few years? What if you move from a really expensive home to a much more modest one? In other words, what if you move from a home valued at $2 million but assessed thanks to SoH at $500,000 to a house worth $500,000? You'd have $1.5 million accrued savings, which means you'd pay taxes on negative $1 million dollars assessed value... right? How does that work? What I'm trying to say is, the loopholes here seem enormous.

But that's not the main problem I have with portability. It exacerbates the problem of tax inequities. Basically, it means that the longer you lived in Florida, the less taxes you'll have to pay, even if you move homes. Lets face it, people wouldn't get "locked in" if there wasn't a homestead based cap. Other people (including renters and businesses) have to pay more taxes because homesteaders pay less. Portability solves the problem only between actual Florida residents. New-comers, landlords, and businesses still have to pay more so these people can pay less.

Of course, since people who qualify for homesteading vote the most, they're the ones who get pandered to. But, wiping out homesteading benefits along with another kind of tax reform (to compensate for the fact that you'd essentially be raising their taxes) is much more fair and won't cause the long term problems that an unequal system, like SoH, is responsible for. But who cares about the long term?

What kind of reform could compensate for loosing the SoH assessment cap? How about this very interesting idea from property appraisers: roll back assessments. I firmly believe that property taxes aren't the problem, it's the rapidly raising assesments that are the problem. They're behind both the increase in taxes paid by individuals, and the growth of local governments and the resulting pain from forced cuts (I mean, growing fast and then cutting back is more painful than just growing less fast). I don't know about the specifics of their plan, reducing assesments by 5% for 5 years, but that seems like a move in the right direction. Apparently, removing the "highest and best use" assesment requirement is on the table for Crist's tax reform, which is also a good thing.

Bottom line: individualized assessment caps are the problem, and portability is only going to perpetuate that. A better solution is needed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

PIP is soooo last week

Thank you, Judge Francis, for giving us more Florida political drama. I had expected the excitement this week to be about the PIP deal and whether there would be a tiny special session on Thursday or Friday to pass the compromise before PIP expired. But, no, instead, out of nowhere, Judge Francis drops a tactical nuke on Florida politics.

Where to start? How about with timing? If this decision had been made a week earlier, Democrats may have pounced on it as a way to delay the primary vote until Feb 5th. Doing it would be easy: foul up, or threaten to, any compromise in the legislature over re-wording the ballot language until October 31st passes, at which point the 90 day deadline on language changes is reached. The legislature, if it wanted to keep an early vote on this amendment (and they do! Otherwise it'll compete with whatever the independent tax and budget commission comes up with for the general election), would have to reschedule the primary + referendum election to February or later. I dunno if Democrats would actually do that - it would take a lot of political capital that the Democrats haven't been very good at accumulating - but it would resolve the early primary problem.

If the decision had been made after October 12th, when the special session is scheduled to end, the legislature would have had to schedule another special session to change the wording, which would have been ridiculous. So the legislature is fortunate that the decision has come down now, and they can decide between rewording it or appealing the decision.

Before getting to that dilemma, lets talk about smear politics. The lawsuit that's caused all this was started by Westin Mayor Eric Hersh. You may remember the news about him starting the lawsuit a few months back - he was slammed by state Republican leaders, especially, if I remember correctly, Pruitt. Well, he's been hammered since then by waves of tv commercials, mailers, and telephone calls to his constituents over this lawsuit. By who? Good question; apparently no one is quite sure who's behind it. However, the trail of political stooges leads us right back to Pruitt and Rubio. So it's clear that the Republican leadership has been doing some very underhanded things to prevent this decision from happening. But now it has. So what next?

The leadership has two options available, and it's basically an either/or situation. On the one hand, they can crack open the amendment and revise the wording. That opens the flood gates though, and big business is eager to get some cuts for businesses in there. So if the special session also reworks the amendment, who knows what will happen. But maybe that's a good thing! The other option is to appeal the decision and take it to the Supreme Court. If they can't get a decision by the Supreme Court before the special session is over, and the Court then rules against them, thats it; there's no referendum short of some drastic maneuvers (like changing the primary date). Not surprisingly, in my mind, Pruitt is pushing for an appeal rather than rewording. Why is that not surprising? Of the three main actors, Crist, Rubio, and Pruitt, Pruitt has the least to lose, as this post on The Buzz details. He's not tied up in this like Crist, who came out swinging for it last week (bet he regrets that now), or Rubio, who has put a lot of his political capital into getting this thing through. Plus, Pruitt (and maybe Rubio, given his recent comments to business leaders) might realize how terrible the tax amendment really is, and actually be for the amendment failing.

They wouldn't be the only Republicans. As I wrote about before, a number of Republicans, including Sen. Lisa Carlton, #2 in the Senate, have publicly come out against the amendment, even though they voted for it in session. They didn't really get the public lambasting they deserve for voting for a crappy amendment they knew, or figured out quickly, was bad, but they probably will if they proceed to vote for a ballot rewording that doesn't change the basics of the amendment. The Republican leadership might not be able to get the votes it needs for a simple rewording! All it takes is about 20 Republicans in the House or 6 or 7 Republicans in the Senate to vote against it to kill the amendment. Carlton and other Republicans who have since spoken out against the amendment will have to choose between keeping to their word or doing a serious flipflop - again.

That's only if the ballot language is merely reworded. More likely, opening up the process to reword it will result in actual changes to the amendment. In as much as I'm for good public policy, I see this as a good thing. They ought to throw in a change to how properties are assessed, for example. However, that's a whole bag of worms. I doubt the Leadership can get major compromises on both budget cuts and the tax amendment in the same week and a half special session. Oh, and fix PIP.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

PIP politics

Rubio is now claiming to working towards a PIP solution. Actually, more infuriatingly, he's saying that we must work towards a PIP solution to prevent political "procrastination." Its amazing that he's so gung ho about it now, considering that he wasn't willing to put PIP on the agenda of the mirage special session that was supposed to start on the 18th.

This whole PIP situation is frustrating. Democrats, particularly Rep. Kriseman, have been pushing for a PIP extension for months. They've been cooking up all kinds of ideas on how to get PIP on the official agenda of the special session (both the decoy and the real one), including some obscure procedure that would force a special session on a particular subject ( i.e., PIP). Democrats have mostly wanted to just extend PIP and work out a compromise in the next regular session (Rep. Gelber still wants to do just that). However, they haven't actually taken up a leadership role in forcing the legislature to take up the issue (writing letters hardly counts). If any Democrat has done that, it's Alex Sink, who somehow managed to push the issue without being overtly political about it. However, it's coming back to haunt Democrats now, as Republicans seem to be hosting negotiations that will produce something that Rubio can bless. Democrats had several opportunities to make PIP their issue, and, if these negotiations work, could have claimed credit on the result.

To be fair, both Democrats and Republicans have been agitating for some kind of PIP extension. But that's not including the leadership and their lieutenants, like Rep. Bogdanoff and Sen. Posey, who seem to have been more part of the problem than the solution for their inability to compromise. The leadership must have realized that they could have mutiny on their hands if they didn't get something done; hence, these negotiations.

Don't feel too good about the apparent progress, though: what they mean by "negotiation" is having a few dozen lobbyists from the various interests in the same room writing a bill. That bill will probably be released just before the special session, not giving potential opponents enough time to figure out how many different ways it screws them. It'll pass, because all the good little Republican boys and girls will do what Rubio and Pruitt tell them to do. And when the media, who will actually read the bill, start reporting on what a turd they passed, many of them will start to publicly equivocate or back down. At least, thats what happened in the last special session, and probably whats going to happen with the budget cuts. Maybe it's a bit cynical, but consider all that my official prediction on what will happen... except for that part about a few dozen lobbyists writing the bill - thats true, and its happening right now.

To summarize: 1) Democrats had an opportunity to make this their issue, and dropped the ball. 2) The Republican leadership desperately tried to avoid extending PIP, but now that it seems likely to happen, have positioned themselves to take the credit. 3) The Republican leadership has a definite style of making public policy: closing the door and keeping Democrats, and the public, out of the discussion. 4) That style produces crappy public policy.

Friday, September 7, 2007

PIP Session?

The Republican leadership may have thought that canceling/postponing the special session would have killed this PIP issue. However, it looks like a number of lawmakers are agitating for for a special session just for PIP. The Buzz article suggests that there's just a couple of lawmakers appealing for the session, but that number is closer to a dozen. If it turns into a movement, whether it succeeds or not, it will be a major blow to the authoritarian Rubio/Pruitt regime in the statehouse.

Lets hope more lawmakers grow spines and stick out their necks to really challenge the leadership on this issue.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Secret Negotiations

So Rubio and Pruitt canceled the special session - or, "postponed" it, to use their words. And why did they postpone it?

"The common denominator for productive special sessions is an initial agreement on a framework for action... While there has been tremendous progress, there is still work to be done... We remain confident that an agreement will be reached and that we will have a fall special session."

So, there's no "initial agreement." Have you read anything in the press about about Pruitt and Rubio working towards an agreement? If, like me, you've been reading articles about possible cuts, reform ideas, and committee meetings where department heads present their budget cut proposals, you probably thought that legislators were educating themselves in the past few weeks, in preparation for the big decisions they would have to make in the special session. The press would mention, here and there, that the House wanted to do targeted cuts, and the Senate wanted to just do a uniform 4% cut. But it never mentioned - to my knowledge - that Rubio and Pruitt were trying come up with an "initial agreement" before the special session started.

My take on this is that the Republican leadership was trying to do what it did before in the property tax special session - craft a plan behind the scenes, then shove it through. I have two problems with this. First, cutting the budget should be a public debate. This isn't something that should be concocted in dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms. It ought to be done in the open, so that the public can act and react. Second, this kind of political negotiation produces crappy policy. Look at what came out of the last special session - a terrible "tax cut" which didn't address the main concerns of property owners, only benefited homesteaders, generated a huge amount of partisan politics, and, in the long run, actually increases tax revenue. Including the public - or at least the other party - in negotiations isn't just important as a matter of political morality, its necessary to produce compromises that everyone can agree to.

It appears that Gov. Crist didn't even know about postponement until everybody else did - is he kept out of the loop on these secret negotiations too? If so, that's amazing, especially now that he's put out a pretty comprehensive budget cut/economic stimulus plan. In fact, that he did put out this plan indicates that he's not really part of the Pruitt-Rubio budget cut cabal. So who is coming up with the initial agreement? Maybe Rep. Joe Pickens, who's head of the education council (and therefore supposedly in charge of education cuts): this Naked Politics post was the first indication I had seen that the special session wasn't really set in stone. And who knows who else?