Democrats assail GOP property tax amendment
By BILL KACZOR
Associated Press Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Democrats assailed a state constitutional amendment that Republican leaders have proposed to slash property taxes for primary homeowners during a committee meeting Monday, a day before lawmakers begin a special session.
The measure, half of the two-element GOP tax-cutting plan, would chop billions of dollars from school budgets and focus relief on homeowners who already get substantial tax breaks instead of other taxpayers who have borne the brunt of recent increases, the Democrats said.
Republicans, who control both legislative chambers, replied that the amendment, which would require voter approval, should not be viewed separately from cuts for all taxpayers included in the other part of the plan lawmakers can pass on their own.
Sen. Steve Geller, of Cooper City, and Rep. Dan Gelber, of Miami Beach, the Democratic leaders in their respective chambers, said they support that statutory proposal. It would require cities, counties and independent special districts to cut taxes, but not school boards.
They said, though, they doubted the amendment would get the 60 percent support needed to pass at the ballot box in part because it would cut school taxes by nearly $2 billion a year.
"Floridians will not vote for a tax cut that is balanced on the backs of school children," Gelber said. "This will decimate public education."
In announcing the plan last week, House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, wrote that they "intend to hold schools harmless from these cuts," but the proposed amendment wouldn't require that.
"There's nothing in the bill other than 'trust us,'" Geller said at a meeting of a House-Senate select committee on property taxation.
"Every year there is a trust us," replied Senate Republican Leader Dan Webster of Winter Garden. "There's no guarantee that education gets whatever."
Yet, the Legislature has never failed to increase school spending even in tight budget years, Webster said later.
"Rain or shine, in this place education is funded first," he said.
If the Democrats stick together they could kill the proposed amendment in the Senate.
It takes a three-fifths vote of both chambers to put an amendment on the ballot for the next general election - November 2008. That means 24 votes in the 40-seat Senate regardless of how many senators are present. There are 23 Republicans, one short, and 16 Democrats.
One seat is vacant because Republican Nancy Argenziano resigned to accept an appointment to the Public Service Commission. A special election to replace her is set for June 26, four days after the special session is scheduled to end.
Republicans hold a 76-42 advantage in the House, where 72 votes are required.
Democrats, though, have enough votes in both chambers to block a separate proposal that would put the tax amendment on the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot. It would need a three-fourths vote in each chamber - 30 in the Senate and 90 in the House.
The GOP package is estimated to cut taxes by $31.6 billion, or 16.3 percent, over five years, but the Democrats pointed out most of those savings - $20.7 billion - would go to owners of primary homes, known as homesteads, including $14.3 billion through the amendment.
Yet, homesteads already get two major tax breaks: a $25,000 exemption and a 3 percent annual limit on assessment increases through the Save Our Homes Amendment voters passed in 1992.
Save Our Homes has spared most homeowners from increases caused by rapidly rising real estate values while bills have soared for other taxpayers including recent home buyers and owners of second homes, rental properties and businesses. Even without the market value increases, Save Our Homes had shifted the tax burden to non-homestead properties.
Geller said the proposed tax-cutting amendment "doesn't help the people who were complaining" but increases the disparity.
Webster acknowledged that, but said over a period of several years the amendment would close that gap by replacing the existing tax breaks with a percentage-based "super exemption."
It would exempt 75 percent of the first $200,000 of a home's value and 15 percent of the next $300,000. No home, though, would get less than a $50,000 exemption, and those who would do better with existing benefits could keep them.
An estimated 73 percent of homeowners would get tax cuts, at least initially, from the amendment. Savings in 2008-09 would average $1,300, or 44 percent, for primary homeowners.
"If you don't get rid of Save Our Homes, you'll never make the reform that's necessary," Webster said. "You have to have a fairly rich plan in order to make that happen, or they're not going to vote for it."
The super exemption also is expected to alleviate another Save Our Homes problem by giving people the same benefit even if they move. Many homeowners have complained of feeling trapping in their existing homes because they would have lost their Save Our Homes benefits if they leave.
The Democratic leaders, though, said it isn't enough of a tax break to help people who want to move in high-value communities of South Florida, where even a middle class home costs $500,000 or more.
The statutory tax cut also exempts or softens the blow on local governments, mostly in rural areas with low property values, but the amendment would not, the Democrats said.
"We, in the statutory rollback, were thoughtful and took care of them because we were using a surgeon's scalpel," Geller said. "In the meat cleaver that is the constitutional amendment, I think four, five or six of those counties will want to mail their keys back to Tallahassee 'cause there is no way that they can continue to function."