Tax commission members missing work

Mar 11, 2008

Herald Tribune--Mar. 11, 2008

TALLAHASSEE Heralded by lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist as potential saviors in the property tax crisis, some members of the Taxation and Budget Review Commission are facing a far simpler challenge of showing up for meetings.

Crist and legislative leaders appointed the TBRC’s members last year. The group meets every 20 years with the unique power to place constitutional amendments directly on the ballot. They have a May 8 deadline to finish business this year. A review of TBRC records shows 8 of the 25 members have missed at least 25 percent of the meetings held since last March. That does not include subcommittees, which have an even lower average attendance rate.

"I wish everyone could have made all the meetings," said Allan Bense, the TBRC chairman from Panama City, who has a perfect attendance record. "But we live in the real world. These people are volunteers; they are business leaders, and it’s very difficult for some of them."

A review of attendance records shows Bruce Kyle, a judge and former lawmaker from Fort Myers, has made it to only 3 of the 17 full TBRC meetings held since last March. Bobby Martinez, a Coral Gables attorney, has attended five meetings. Mark Bostick, a Polk County business executive, has attended nine meetings. Phone messages and e-mails left for Kyle and Bostick on Monday afternoon were not returned.

Martinez said Monday he has devoted many hours to the job, including the preparation of studies on topics as diverse as class-size limits and water management.

He said attendance is not the best measure of effectiveness since many of the meetings so far have centered on routine updates and discussion.

"Frankly, I’ve done a lot of work for this commission," he said, adding that he has three children and a career to manage as well. "I did the best I could."

Alan Levine, a former Broward County health executive who recently took a position with the state of Louisiana, resigned on Friday due to his change in jobs. Richard Corcoran, the former chief of staff to House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, will step in.

Bense and other TBRC members who were available on Monday said that low attendance has not affected the group’s work, but that the 25 members will need to show up for the next two months as critical plans are considered.

"There haven’t been any negative effects from poor attendance to date," said former Senate President John McKay, a Republican from Bradenton. "But I think it’s vital that every member make every effort possible to be there going forward."

On Friday, due in part to storms that hampered travel, only 16 of the 25 members were present at a Tallahassee conference room. Since 17 votes are needed to approve any proposed constitutional amendments and votes cannot be registered by phone, only recommendations to the Legislature could be considered.

At least one effort may have been denied due to attendance issues.

TBRC member Les Miller, a former state senator from Tampa, had proposed a plan to move the start date of the legislative session from March to January. His hope was to allow local governments more time to adjust to legislative mandates.

On the first try in January, the measure was defeated 16-1 when only 17 members were present. A "re-vote" in February was held when more members were there, but it failed 13-6.

Miller said Monday that the measure might have passed the first time had more members been present to supply the one needed vote.

"That’s the way things go. That one vote basically defeated it," said Miller.

Some lawmakers, struggling last year to deal with tax cut plans, said the TBRC would be more likely to avoid political controversy and make necessary changes to the state’s tax system. And in his State of the State address last week, Crist encouraged the TBRC to consider deeper property tax cuts — a task lawmakers are unlikely to address in a tight fiscal year.

Expensive airfare and the remoteness of Tallahassee have always made it hard for south Floridians to participate. But few TBRC members have as far to travel as Ken Wilkinson, the Lee County property appraiser who has made it to almost every meeting. Instead of booking a flight that could easily cost $1,000 round-trip, Wilkinson has made the 353-mile one-way drive for 16 of the 17 TBRC meetings.

"It’s a killer. But I have no regrets," he said. In addition to the 17 TBRC meetings, the members are each on a subcommittee that has met a similar number of times. Add in conference calls, statewide meetings last year, the study of 50 different ideas related to myriad issues and the usual short notice for meetings, and the work load has surprised even Tallahassee veterans.

"I’m not sure any of us sat down and thought how much time this would really require," McKay said. "It’s been more than every member expected."