More tax reform talk delivered with amendment’s passage

Jan 31, 2008

January 31, 2008–Daytona Beach News-Journal

More tax reform talk delivered with amendment’s passage

Staff Writers

TALLAHASSEE — Before all the votes were even counted Tuesday night, business groups and House Republican leaders started firing out e-mails.

Their message: While voters approved a constitutional amendment to cut property taxes, Floridians need more relief.

“Today’s vote is the first step, not the last, in providing . . . tax relief,” House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, said in one of the e-mails. “More must be done to reform Florida’s unfair property-tax system that is making our state increasingly unaffordable.”

But while Rubio and others prepare to push for more relief in the coming months, it’s unclear whether they will be able to build enough support to make far-reaching changes in the tax system.

Two Democratic leaders said Wednesday they don’t think lawmakers will approve major property-tax cuts during a legislative session that starts in March.

What’s more, the chairman of a powerful state tax commission indicated passing the constitutional amendment might reduce the chances his panel will propose major property-tax changes.

Allan Bense, chairman of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which has the power to propose constitutional amendments, said the panel might not get “so bogged down” in property taxes and could begin looking more at other issues.

Property taxes have been perhaps the biggest political issue of the past year in Tallahassee. Lawmakers spent months debating tax-cut proposals before placing a constitutional amendment on Tuesday’s ballot.

Voters easily passed the amendment, which could reduce property taxes by an estimated $9.3 billion over five years.

The measure, in part, will increase the homestead exemption for non-school taxes from $25,000 to $50,000 for many residences; allow people to transfer Save Our Homes benefits when they move; and cap increases in the taxable values of businesses and other non-homesteaded properties at 10 percent a year.

Tax-cut supporters, while voting for the amendment, have said for months they considered it only a “first step” in revamping the tax system.

Volusia County Property Appraiser Morgan Gilreath, for example, said he would like to address inequities created by the Save Our Homes tax cap, which limits assessment increases to 3 percent a year on homesteaded properties.

Gilreath proposes a maximum 60 percent assessment level for all homestead properties — a move that could help eliminate situations in which new residents pay far higher taxes than their neighbors who have benefited from years of the Save Our Homes cap. The appraiser said he thinks the state also should look at limiting local-government spending, whether the money comes from property taxes or other sources such as fees.

“Tax reform that’s going to have meaningful impact has to do with spending,” Gilreath said.

In another potentially far-reaching idea, a group known as Floridians for Property Tax Reform is backing a proposal that would limit taxes to 1.35 percent of the taxable value of each property.

Lead consultant Brett Doster said the group hopes the proposal will prompt lawmakers or the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission to pass a comprehensive tax-cut plan. But if such a plan doesn’t materialize, Doster said the group will try to take its proposal to voters in 2010 as a ballot initiative.

The Legislature’s top Democrats, however, said Wednesday they do not expect lawmakers to pass a major tax overhaul this year.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, said he doesn’t think senators will approve significant cuts, at least in part because they don’t fully know the impacts of Tuesday’s constitutional amendment and of a tax-rollback package that passed last year.

Also, House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he thinks it will be hard to pass further tax cuts at the same time the state faces a huge budget shortfall because of the struggling economy.

Schools and other government agencies, such as police and fire departments, already are worried tax cuts could affect services.

“If the spigot is turned off, if you will, I can tell you crime is not going down,” said Jeff Candage, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 385, which represents law enforcement officers with several Central Florida agencies including the Daytona Beach Police Department and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.