Florida House passes tax-cut bill; Senate not on board

Apr 23, 2008

South Florida Sun-Sentinel--April 23, 2008

By Josh Hafenbrack

The Florida House passed a tax-cut package today along party lines, but faces long odds in getting a reluctant Senate to agree to cuts that would dig deeply into local government and school budgets.

The House package would cap property taxes for all categories of homeowners — permanent homeowners, businesses, snowbirds — at 1.35 percent of taxable value, a measure that would slice tax bills by more than 30 percent on average in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The cap passed on a 79-38 vote, with Democrats nearly united against the cap they said would decimate services like police and fire protection.

The House’s tax-cut program also would place a revenue cap on all levels of government, from Tallahassee and school districts to city and county halls.

In an identical 79-38 vote, the House passed the ceiling on all revenues, including fees, with annual spending increases determined by population growth and inflation.

Both measures would change the state constitution, so they’d go to the Nov. 4 ballot and need approval from 60 percent of voters.

But the Senate has expressed little interest in moving forward with more tax cuts.

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbroune, said the 1.35-percent property tax cap doesn’t have the votes to pass the Senate before the session adjourns May 2.

The Senate wants to wait until the voter-approved Amendment One takes root this summer before taking more action.

“You know this thing is dead in the Senate,” House Democrat Leader Dan Gelber, of Miami Beach, told his Republican counterparts. “If you want to play this game, go ahead. The people of Florida don’t want symbols. They want real tax relief.”

But House Republicans said they were only responding to a statewide outcry for lower property taxes.

Rep. Carlos Lopez Cantera, R-Miami, noted Amendment One focused its benefits on homesteaders, while the 1.35-percent cap spreads an estimated $6 billion savings to all property owners.

“Floridians are suffering, they are suffering daily from the rising cost of property taxes in this state,’ he said. “There are only so many dollars we can extract from people.”

Cantera said he’s not worried about the dent the 1.35-percent cap would make in local government and school revenues. Property taxes make up just a portion of local budgets, he said.

“It’s our job to protect the people who are paying the tax, not collecting the taxes,” he said. “It would not be cataclysmic, it would not be catastrophic.”

Further muddying Florida’s property-tax picture: A powerful budget reform commission this Thursday is expected to vote on whether to place a proposal to do away with school property taxes on the Nov. 4 ballot.

To replace the lost revenue, the Legislature would have to increase the sales tax and come up with other sources of funding

The House’s 1.35-percent cap also is the subject of a citizen petition supported by House Speaker Marco Rubio, R- West Miami, which is gathering signatures to get the issue on the November 2010 ballot.

A big beneficiary would be commercial property owners, but not all business groups are lining up behind Rubio’s plan.

“I think we have to be careful to believe that we can just cut, cut, cut,” said Barnie Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida.

“We don’t want local government killed off so it can’t provide the services a growing population and a growing business community needs.”