Candidates' taxing stand

Last week, Commissioner Bob Freeman promised to abandon his unofficial bid to become Orange County Chairman if voters embrace a 1-cent sales-tax hike that he opposes. Some wonder if this doesn’t give his detractors an excuse to tax themselves silly in November. Nevertheless, he has staked his future to its fate.;;Likewise, the leading candidate for chairman, Mel Martinez, also has come out against the issue that would raise an estimated $1 billion for the county over the next decade (and $2.2 billion overall), providing the next chairman with ready cash to spend on roads, parks, flood control, police and jails. While Martinez stops short of promising to commit political harikari if the tax issue succeeds, he is philosophically opposed, despite pressure from business leaders who are behind its passage.;;Martinez and Freeman, two anti-tax Republicans, are the only viable names cropping up in discussions of the 1998 nonpartisan contest to replace Chairman Linda Chapin. But should the tax pass, Chapin observes, "I guess they will be the beneficiaries of a lot of heavy lifting.";;"It’s interesting, to say the least," says Bob Spears, chairman of the nonpartisan CountyWatch, which promotes open and accountable government. ;;Still, such timing makes sense politically. By picking up the tax torch late in her second and final term, Chapin can block the heat that inevitably falls on those who push taxes with minimal regard for her political future. And by raising the issue now, Chapin and other community leaders can go for the money while allowing plenty of time for any controversy to die down before the chairman’s race in 1998. After all, nobody wants any contentious debates.;;"It will have blown away," says Spears. "Whether it goes up or down, it probably won’t be that big an issue [in the chairman’s race].";;A Democrat willing to join the high-profile, pro-tax campaign might break the convincing grip that Martinez has on the election by virtue of his campaign contributions, Spears says. "It would be nice to have a contrast," he says. "I don’t think we’ll have much of a contrast.";;In fact, Martinez, an attorney and past chairman of the Orlando Utilities Commission, describes himself as the man for the job regardless of the bottom line. "I’m prepared for either challenge," he says. That said, expect Martinez to keep a low profile during the sales-tax campaign. "The chairman’s race will begin in earnest once this is over," he says.;;Not so with Freeman, a blunt spokesman for the anti-tax coalition. He will continue to stump against the issue, regardless of where that puts him in relation to the county leadership gathering behind Chapin. "If it passes, it passes, and I’m outdated," he says. "If the public has changed their philosophy to that extent, it’s contrary to what I believe in.";;To Freeman there is no irony in Chapin’s push for a tax that neither of her probable successors wants. "This is Linda Chapin’s tax. This is her legacy. This what she’s going to be known for."