Frankly Speaking

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2007

Editor’s note: Unlikely bedfellows State Sen. Mike Bennett (R-Manatee) and freshman State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald (D-Sarasota) collaborated extensively this past legislative session, working together on a bill to protect the Myakka River, a net metering bill and a community land trust bill.

They took time out from the heat of the Florida Legislature’s annual 60-day session to talk with newly elected Sarasota City Commissioner Kelly Kirschner about growth management, paper trail ballots and more. The only disagreement came when Fitzgerald suggested a possible state income tax. “Don’t do that!” Bennett said. “I’d like to see you come back to the Legislature. We’re just starting to get along.”

Below are excerpts from the interview.

How did you team up on these bills?

Bennett: I have always made a commitment to any House member to present on their behalf, because in the Senate we are allowed to submit an unlimited amount of bills and in the House they’re limited to six bills per slot. Where I can help is when somebody comes to me from the House and says, “I’m Keith Fitzgerald. I live in your district and I am having a problem getting this bill through.” I have no problems saying, “Look, that’s not my issue, but who you are having the problem with over there? Do I have something else I can pull over their head?” Sometimes it can be done on a real quiet basis: “We’d like you to hear Keith’s bill.” “Well, I’m really not interested.” “Well, you know that bill you sent over, I’m really not interested in that one, either.”

Fitzgerald: I think the perception that everything is partisan all the time is really not true. If you look at just votes, a great deal of stuff passes by 90 percent to 100 percent [of the time[. If you look at the Myakka River bill, I can’t even remember which one of us put in the bill first. But these are things that are good for the community and are not going to divide people on party grounds. Sen. Bennett was willing to take up a couple of my things, and I will return the favors.

Do you think global warming poses a serious threat to Florida?

Bennett: There is a serious threat to mankind, not just the state of Florida. You cannot deny that just the mass of bodies we have on the face of the Earth has warmed the environment. Is the warming going to be the end of the Earth? I don’t know, but I do know this: The air your great grandchildren are going to breathe is going to be affected by what we do today. We would be guilty of misconduct if we didn’t attack it.

Fitzgerald: It would just be wildly irresponsible not to act. Most of what we can do politically and economically to help combat global warming, we ought to be doing for other reasons as well. Energy conservation just makes a heck a lot of sense. We can continue to have economic growth, but do it in ways that conserve natural resources.

Alan Greenspan says there is a 30 percent chance of a national recession. Are we currently in a recession in Florida?

Fitzgerald: Doc stamp revenue is down; property tax revenue is down; every single revenue stream is down. If I remember the basics of macroeconomics, two consecutive quarters with negative growth equals a recession. So I would say yes. I’d also add that we’ve had incredibly low unemployment, particularly in the Sarasota-Manatee area for quite some time. Low unemployment for long periods of time can be indicators of an unhealthy economy, where it’s pointing to a labor shortage. In this case, our shortage probably has something to do with the cost of living being too high.

Bennett: I’d agree with Keith. The No. 1 industry in Florida is growth. We have horrible growth management. You can take any area where you have a problem with growth around Sarasota or Manatee County and [find that] there is a lack of planning. Local governments have shut down the construction industry, and then they are going to turn around and complain to the state of Florida because they don’t have doc stamp revenue. There is no affordable housing. There is no sales tax on the construction material. You cannot put a gate across the top of the state of Florida and stop the growth. However, it is true that our rate of growth is slowing down.

Fitzgerald: I would amplify a couple of things. Most people think policy is the outcome of the politics. But very often, the policy causes the politics. If you set up your growth management strategy as strictly regulatory, then immediately the dynamic is going to be people who are affected by the regulations will fight them, and people who want to have different outcomes will be proponents, and you get locked into this battle that can last for 20, 30 or 40 years. That’s a good thing to keep in mind when you write the policies.

What would a new model of growth management look like?

Bennett: There is no easy fix. Some of the fixing is mixed-use housing. What are we doing to encourage alternative forms of transportation? Are we doing enough to make this town a walking community, a bicycle-riding community? We are looking at revitalizing U.S. 41. I think it would be wonderful if we could somehow go right up 41 with some kind of elevated rail system. I am not talking about a high-speed rail system. Something the students from Ringling School of Art could go on and get up to New College, go to the art museum.

Fitzgerald: We need to start looking at process because municipalities and counties have very limited tool kits. Transportation issues are seen as transportation issues. Development issues are seen separately. Well, think about the traffic and re-development problems on U.S. 41. It’s a whole bunch of complicated issues rolled together. We’ve got to stop people from looking at integrated problems from strict disciplinary standpoints.

Bennett: The other thing is that we don’t allow our state government employees to recognize exceptions. You want to put a new restaurant up on 41 and you’re willing to take an old building and gut it. But ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] says, “Oh no, you need a ramp up here and over there; and by the way, you need to re-sprinkle this whole ceiling.” The regulatory people are not using any common sense. The state is the worst, because we pass laws that are statewide.

Fitzgerald: A bill we’re working on now proposes a more regional staff with more discretion, versus Tallahassee oversight. I don’t see any reason why we can’t have different parts of the state develop different styles and approaches and then maybe learn from each other. It’s pretty remarkable to me, and I am not taking a partisan shot, but the people who describe themselves as conservative are also the ones who want to centralize power in Tallahassee on absolutely everything. I just don’t get that.

What do you think about eliminating impact fees in the city to bring people back downtown?

Bennett: Nobody hates impact fees more than I do. However, we cannot eliminate impact fees, because there is an impact with new construction. It’s not like the $112,000 being charged in some places in California. Nor is it the $38,000 they’re charging down in Collier County. However, you should be able to weigh transportation concurrency and urban infill. You should be able to encourage higher densities on urban infill. The state should be granting the city of Sarasota money to improve its sewer system. I have a real problem with counties. I happen to love cities. The city people love me, and on the same token, the county people hate me.

Fitzgerald: I thought of a crazy idea the other day: I think the state should empower municipalities to create urban infill credits for impact fees. If people will actually commit to doing infill, they can sell or trade the tax credit.

Bennett: What the state should be doing is encouraging the cities through grants and the city through giving credit to the developers on the impact fees. I’m telling you, my young friend, don’t give away the impact fees. You can control them, but if you say you are going to give away your impact fees, you’ll never get re-elected.

Fitzgerald:  We should talk about this more. The business guys, they want to make a living—and if they can make a living in a stable business environment, rebuilding the urban areas, they are going to do it. It’s not like they are somehow ideologically opposed or have to be sprawling out to the suburbs. We just have to work with them to figure out how to create the business climate so that they can make a living doing what they want to do. And by the same token, we’ve got to figure out how to make urban living desirable for people, particularly with kids.

Bennett: Look at the land where Sarasota Military Academy is. Habitat’s negotiating to buy it. The city of Sarasota should be buying it instead and pushing for Sarasota County Schools to build a new school complex to attract families to live near there. They’re letting that piece go to some guy like me who’s going to build a bunch of damn condos on it, or whatever else I can get away with.

What are your thoughts on the recent successful Sarasota County referendum to better control municipal expansion into unincorporated areas?

Bennett: I believe in local control. The closer you get to the people, the better government it is. But as badly as I hate to admit it, I do believe that some of the projects we were letting North Port do are huge enough to where they have a regional impact you cannot ignore. There should be a working planning agreement, but you should still let the city have the final vote.

The state has the $1 billion Sadowski Trust fund that was intended to be a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing yearly, but Jeb Bush’s administration capped its spending. Are you working on eliminating the cap?

Bennett: A bigger issue for affordable housing is regulation: Get rid of some of the regulations and we’ll get rid of some of the problems. I’m trying to build affordable housing in the 3700 block on 14th Street. It’s an area where all the hookers and crackheads hang out. We’re on the fast track up there because it’s affordable housing. We are now in our second year being on the fast track. True story. All the cities, all the local governments… they do not want affordable housing. They don’t want it because, the city of Sarasota will tell you, they lose money on any house valued under $280,000. They sit and talk about it but you go and find how much affordable housing was built in Sarasota County in the last two years.

Fitzgerald: I would say that regardless of what happens with property taxes, we have got to look at the property tax structure. The bill we are doing together—and I hope Senator Bennett pushes it for me on this community land trust—is a great example of this.

Bennett: It’s a great bill.

Fitzgerald: We set up this nice mechanism where 501(c)3 nonprofits buy land, build structures and give working people equity in the structures so that they actually have the incentive to work hard and save. And they agree, if they resell, not to flip the property but resell it at an affordable rate. We also need to take renting seriously. Not everybody at every point in their life needs to be buying a home. Property taxes have made it almost impossible for people to be in the business of renting or to be a renter.

Bennett: I own a lot of rental units. I watched my property tax bill double in a three-year period. I can’t pass that much rent on, and no, you cannot buy a structure for rental today anywhere in Sarasota or Manatee County with cash flow.

What can we do at a state level?

Fitzgerald: One part of the answer is to move away from “highest and best use.” This is a huge engine for sprawl. The assessment ought to be done at median income value as opposed to highest and best use for rental stuff.

Bennett: Give me some more density. I have no problem with there being strings attached. Tell them, “Here is the deal. You are going to put units in the land trust or you are going to hold this price down. And if you hold this price down, we are not going to let the ‘flippers’ come in and buy them. We are going to have some restrictions on it.” I have no problem with that. Do I like it? Hell no, I don’t like it and there’s no other builder that likes it either. But reality says I would like that everybody have a chance to live the American dream.

What about a new tax system based primarily on sales tax?

Bennett: I can make the argument that there shouldn’t be any property taxes. I grew up here and worked hard all my life. Let’s face it, the newspaper prints my financial statements, so everyone knows how I’m doing. By the same token, I started with nothing. I did it all myself; I busted my ass and I bought my house, but I never owned it because I always have to pay the government for the privilege of how hard I work. What about the guy who never holds a job? He’s the crackhead down on the corner. He doesn’t own his place. He doesn’t have to pay any taxes. What kind of deal is this? Give me the sales tax. People will say, “Well that’s an extremely regressive tax.” I can argue that the disenfranchised, the poor people if you will, actually make it up in other benefits that we as a government give them. Now, do I believe that we should have an income tax in the state of Florida? No, because why should I be taxed for the harder I work? Just like when we had the intangible tax. He goes out there and he’s worked hard all of his life. He and his wife saved money. They finally retire to Florida. He has a little IRA sitting over here, some kind of retirement fund, and now we’re going to tax him on it.

Fitzgerald: On this we do disagree. If you just look at the numbers, there aren’t huge numbers of terribly poor people. It’s working-class people who are getting ripped off.

Bennett: I happen to agree with you because, and I have told the Senate, “Gentlemen, if you want to go to a sales tax, that’s fine. Just go to the McKay plan on exemptions.” Food and pharmaceuticals is the place to start. Do we absolutely need to have a skybox seat that doesn’t have a sales tax? Our system has so many holes in the state of Florida. It’s patently unfair.

Fitzgerald: From an economic standpoint it’s a little bit dangerous to base your whole revenue just on sales tax. It’s very sensitive to the economy. I would like to have a long-term discussion about revenue in the state. We need to start looking at other revenue sources. I’d be a fool to throw income taxes into this conversation.

Bennett: Don’t do that! I would like to see you come back to the legislature. We’re just starting to get along. And I just pissed Benson off the other night. I told her, “I’m kind of liking the guy, Laura.”

Keith talked about requesting a pilot paper ballot trail program for Sarasota County where we would use an all-absentee ballot system of voting.

Fitzgerald: I have a bill that would enable counties to use all-mail voting at their discretion. It was uniformly supported, strangely enough, by the supervisors of elections. The staff analysis on the House side said it would reduce the cost of elections by a third. I have had people from both parties say, “We don’t like that.” The Democrats aren’t crazy about it because they feel Republicans are better at absentee voting. Some Republicans aren’t crazy about it, in the House particularly, because they say, “When you go to mail-voting, people start paying more attention to the down-ballot issues and down-ballot races. They start to actually study those races and they don’t vote as reliably on party lines, and we have a lot of safe seats.”

Bennett: They said that?

Fitzgerald: Yeah, they actually said this. They have got a lot of safe seats. They don’t want people looking too close. And my answer to them is to say, “Thanks. Well, then, maybe you ought to start putting up some better candidates.”

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