ATLANTA -- Florida's tax commission is set today to exercise for the first time its unique power to put fiscal reform directly before state voters, giving Floridians the opportunity to approve a constitutional amendment to overhaul the state's budget process.

The Florida Tax and Budget Reform Commission also is preparing to draft constitutional amendments that would allow a state income tax and limit Florida's spending to the rate of economic growth, said Karen Walby, staff director of the commission's Finance and Taxation Joint Committee.

Ms. Walby predicted that at today's meeting, the commissioners will authorize placing a budget-reform amendment on the November 1992 ballot that would seek a comprehensive state planning process, more gubernatorial budget authority, abolition of most state trust funds, and provisions to speed up implementation of state audit findings.

"These budget reform recommendations were not approved by the Legislature this year, so we will put them before the voters," Ms. Walby said. "Now the commission can shift gears t put its focus on tax reform."

The commission, approved by the voters in 1988, was set up to revise the state's fiscal structure, which has become increasingly beleaguered in the face of a growing demand for state services. Unlike similar bodies in other states, Florida's tax reform commission was given the unusual power to call for constitutional referendums, placing its proposals directly before voters. Traditionally, this power is limited to state legislatures.

The commission responded to its mandate by first proposing budgetary reform to the state Legislature -- presenting more than 100 recommendations to change the way Florida spends its money. Only a few of the those proposals have been enacted, however.

But now that the budget recommendations are set to be placed before state voters, the commission can move to redesign the state's system of taxation, Ms. Walby said.

One constitutional change in Florida's tax system that will be discussed today, she said, is limiting the Legislature from authorizing spending in excess of the state's economic growth rate.

Another area that will be considered, she said, is an expansion of the state's sales tax base to include areas now exempt. Although no constitutional amendment has yet been drafted for the commission's consideration. Ms. Walby said special attention will be given to urge the legislature to extend the sales tax to cover services.

The commission estimates that more than $10.5 billion in additional taxes could be collected by eliminating all sales tax exemptions, which would more than double the state's revenue intake.

Ms. Walby said that in early October the commission will ge the results of a study of the revenues that could be collected from a personal income tax in Florida. The study could result in a constitutional referendum for a state income tax also being placed on the November 1992 ballot. Florida and Texas are the only two large states that currently do not impose this levy.

The commission official said the first constitutional amendment on tax reform likely to be presented to the full commission, however, will address the state's estate taxes. Currently, the state's estate taxes are constitutionally set to match the maximum federal credit, which is capped at 16% for estate over $10.4 million. The constitutional amendment would eliminate the state's dependence on the federal law.

Commission members, said Ms. Walby, are eager to put the estate tax referendum before voters because they fear Congress will end the credit, wiping out a revenue source that brings Florida more than $300 million a year. Congress, she said, has twice considered proposals to eliminate the federal credit for estate taces paid to states -- and given the budget crunch the federal government faces, it is likely to attempt do so again.

Kurt R. Wenner, senior analyst at Florida TaxWatch Inc., a nonprofit research foundation in Tallahassee, said his organization strongly supports the efforts of the commission to reform the state's budget process and backs most of its tax reform proposals.

"The need for an extension of the state's tax base is long overdue," he said. "We don't support a state income tax, because we think it would be counterproductive in the long run."

Hyman Grossman, managing director of municipal finance at Standard & Poor's Corp., said a personal income tax could be useful in expanding Florida's highly stressed revenue base.

"But it is not the magic solution," he warned. "Other reforms, such as expansion of the state's sales tax, should also be part of a tax reform package."

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