Fears about school funding could scuttle latest plan for property tax reform
By Linda Kleindienst and Mark Hollis
June 13, 2007
TALLAHASSEE · The Florida Legislature opened a special session on property taxes Tuesday amid growing worries that the leading tax-cut plan could strip public schools of billions in revenue and skepticism that a key part of the package can survive in the Senate.
Democrats vowed to oppose a proposed constitutional amendment to supersize the state's homestead exemption -- a good deal for homeowners, but that would divert more than $7 billion from Florida's school systems over five years. In the session's first hours, it was apparent a few Republicans might join the Democrats, enough to kill the measure in the Senate.
Even before lawmakers gaveled themselves to order, to finish what they couldn't get done this spring, Gov. Charlie Crist tried to dispel fears that public education would pay a painful price in exchange for the tax relief being proposed for property owners.
"We have to make sure education gets the funding it deserves," Crist said. "We also have to make sure the taxpayers get the tax cuts they deserve. We have to do both, and we have to do them well."
The plan, proposed by the Legislature's Republican leadership, would replace the $25,000 homestead exemption with a 75 percent exemption of the first $200,000 of a home's value and 15 percent of the next $300,000 of value. The leaders' hope is to put the issue on the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot.
If voters approve, legislative staff projections are that public schools would be hit with a $2 billion drop in property tax revenue the first year and more than $7 billion over five years. House and Senate leaders have vowed they will find money elsewhere to fill the gap, a pledge Democrats mocked.
"If we can find the money, why did the state raise school property taxes by more than $500 million this year?" said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City. "Florida is now 49th in the country in per capita funding for public schools. If we pass this, we'll go to 50th ... it's something we should be ashamed of."
House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, lashed out at Democrats, accusing them of trying to sow panic to torpedo tax cuts.
"Politically, they cannot come out against it," Rubio said. "So, what they do instead is create confusion and misstate the facts."
It takes a three-fifths vote of the 40-member Senate to approve a proposed constitutional amendment, meaning 24 senators have to concur. Because there are 25 Republicans, all it would take is two dissenters allied with the Democrats to stop the plan. And Tuesday, at least one Republican sounded overtly hostile.
"We're going to do this on the backs of our teachers?" asked Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami. "My wife's a teacher. What are they going to do, cut their salaries?"
Crist and legislative leaders insist the tax formula being considered by lawmakers, who are scheduled to be in session until June 22, will reinvigorate a sluggish real estate market and boost the state's economy. The plan calls for more than $31 billion in property tax cuts over five years through an immediate rollback of local government property taxes, a cap on future tax increases and the constitutional change in homestead exemption.
"If we can continue to reduce property insurance and significantly reduce property taxes, we fire up Florida's economy again," Crist said. "What does that mean to Florida's treasury? It means a better bottom line -- and an opportunity for more revenue to fund education even more strongly."
Meanwhile, firefighters, paramedics, police officers and other government employees and officials converged on the Capitol to give lawmakers a grim assessment of the job losses and cutbacks in public services that lie ahead if the tax cuts being contemplated become a reality. The dire predictions were made at a crowded two-hour public hearing.
Broward County Commissioners Ilene Lieberman and Kristin Jacobs, who were among the speakers, said their board would likely have to prune the 6,100-strong county workforce by up to 900 if legislators and voters approve the tax plan.
Palm Beach County officials, including Commissioner Jeff Koons and Ronald Beasley, a fire battalion chief, predicted sweeping cuts to fire-rescue services that Beasley said would increase the risks to emergency personneland lengthen response times.
Speakers from Miami-Dade County said the tax reductions would be especially hard on the poor.
"This legislation is a recipe for human misery," said Van Church, a lobbyist for a union that represents nurses at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, who estimated the hospital would lose at least $30 million a year from the roughly $140 million a year it gets from the county.