Nothing is certain but uncertainty

"Our Constitution is in actual operation; everything appears to promise that it will last, but in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."

-Benjamin Franklin, 1789

Perhaps if ole Ben had managed to squeeze a bit more voltage out of that thunderstorm he was playing in with his kite -- maybe if he had gotten a massive shock, passed out and struggled to find his way back to consciousness after seeing the bright light at the end of the dark tunnel -- he might not have been so certain about the certainty of death.

Clearly, had he been living in Orange County, State of Florida, at the beginning of this millennium, he also would have realized that there is nothing certain about taxes -- at least nothing that he would have wanted to bet the printing press on.

For, right now, local taxpayers can be sure of very little as they watch two governmental bodies work the opposite ends of the tax spectrum, trying to jury-rig a system that just can't seem to support all the essential costs of keeping the commonwealth afloat.

At the state level, there is Senate President John McKay, who thinks that the needs of modern Florida cannot be met by a current tax system which takes in $17 billion a year in sales taxes, but excludes $23 billion from collection due to more than 300 sweetheart exemptions passed by the legislature during the past 50 years -- 106 of them in the last decade alone.

McKay wants to cancel the exemptions on all but $6 billion of that untapped revenue. While continuing to shield such items as food, health care, drugs and rent, his plan would begin fully to tax goods and services that most of us rarely use but are currently tax-free. The list includes radio and TV advertising; racehorse and dairy-cow feed; Super Bowl and World Cup soccer tickets; legal services; accounting, auditing, tax-preparation and bookkeeping services; newspaper advertising; boats or airplanes taken out-of-state, and (my own personal favorite) satellites and space vehicles.

Naturally, the special interests who have been getting a free ride on these and other non-taxed items are mounting a vigorous campaign to combat McKay's measure, which would require that three- fifths of the legislature vote to put it on the November ballot as a referendum to amend the state's constitution.

In return for the limit on exemptions, McKay proposes to lower the sales tax rate from 6 to 4.5 percent. The plan's supporters suggest that the revamped system would expand and stabilize the state's tax base, while saving the average family a few hundred dollars a year.

Meanwhile, even as the state debates lowering it, the Orange County School Board is toying with the idea of raising the sales tax by a half cent. That means our local tax would rise to 6.5 percent -- unless the state's plan goes through, which would lower our tax to 4.5 percent, unless, of course, the county's plan also goes through, which would raise it to 5 percent. Everybody clear? (By the way, the proposed change could cost the average Orange County family -- you guessed it -- a few hundred dollars a year.)

At one point, the School Board was considering linking the sales-tax increase to a property-tax decrease of $50 per $1000 of assessed value, thinking that it might make the plan more palatable to the public. In the end, the Board decided to forgo that part of the mix, saying it would complicate the issue (as if that were possible).

Clearly at stake here are two basic premises. One: Taxes should only be levied to support "essential" services, and two: They should be fair. Regarding McKay's crusade, there is no doubt that the gargantuan list of special-interest exemptions needs to be cut massively in the interests of fairness; and if Florida is going to continue to subsist on sales taxes, the base must be widened to support essential services. Locally, unless new revenues are tapped for the $2 billion shortfall in the county's school-construction budget, its educational infrastructure will continue to careen downhill.

In the end, both of these proposals could fall victim to the parochial politics of a populace that wants the good life but also wants the other guy to pay the check. As of right now, nothing seems certain -- at least in terms of taxes.

It's a good thing that the Constitution is still "in actual operation" -- although, with Attorney General John Ashcroft at the helm, that doesn't seem too certain, either. Ahh, but that's a tale for another stormy day.

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