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Floridians will vote on reforming the property tax system on Jan. 29

Author johnbsims3
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#1 | Posted: 5 Jun 2007 19:30 
Floridians will vote on reforming the property tax system on Jan. 29

By Mark Hollis and Linda Kleindienst
Tallahassee Bureau

June 5, 2007

TALLAHASSEE Voters will get a chance to revamp Florida's property tax structure Jan. 29, the same day as Florida's presidential primary, legislative leaders said Monday.

Republican lawmakers hailed the agreement as a sign they are inching toward a tax cut deal they hope to finish in a 10-day special legislative session that starts June 12.

By putting the tax cut issue on the same ballot that Democrats and Republicans will use to mark their party nominations for the presidential election, the state avoids the cost of having a special election just on property taxes. Some legislators also predicted that merging presidential politics with the property tax issue might encourage national candidates to take a stand on Florida's controversial tax topics.

Although legislators appear now to have settled on when voters would go to the polls on property taxes, they still don't know the particulars of what people would be asked to approve. They are haggling over how much home and business owners will save and how deeply to trim local government spending to provide the tax relief.

A legislative committee charged with devising a property tax agreement met Monday, but the meeting yielded little progress and ended several hours earlier than scheduled.

House and Senate Republican leaders announced at the meeting that the presiding officers of the House and Senate agreed on the Jan. 29 date for the referendum.

Democratic legislators complained after the meeting that only a broad framework for cutting taxes is in place. They want Republican leaders to shell out details, especially the precise percentages that taxes would be trimmed.

"It's very hard to be optimistic," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors. "I feel like we're feeling around in the dark about to embark on a major policy decision. We're not ready and that's discouraging."

Republican leaders are more optimistic but conceded that much work remains.

Gov. Charlie Crist, back from a weeklong visit to Israel and Jordan, told legislators and reporters at Monday's meeting that he is optimistic but urges patience.

"Sometimes it's just easier to lurch forward," Crist said, adding that he would rather see legislators "take a little time" in devising a tax cut strategy.

On Friday, House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, announced a plan that would force cities and counties to slash property taxes this year and limit future tax increases to the rate of personal income growth. Other taxing bodies, such as water management districts and hospital districts, would face smaller tax cuts. School districts would be spared from cuts.

The legislative leaders' plan is the framework for the tax cut package that lawmakers are trying to put the finishing details to in advance of the special session. Since Republicans overwhelmingly control both the House and Senate, the Republican leaders' tax plan is the one that is likely to pass.

Alternative ideas have been touted by individual leaders, and the plan is different from proposals written during the regular spring legislative session, which failed to yield a tax-cut agreement.

The leaders' plan would require a constitutional amendment to create a super-sized homestead exemption for homeowners, based on a percentage of individual property values, giving less expensive properties the biggest savings. It would transform the $25,000 homestead exemption now allowed only for Floridians' primary residences into one linked to the value of a home.

The new exemption also would replace the popular yet controversial Save Our Homes tax cap. Save Our Homes limits increases in the taxable value of homes to 3 percent in a single year. That tax cap is controversial because it has created wide disparities in what Floridians' pay in property taxes, with longtime homeowners paying less in property taxes than recent buyers.

Under the plan, longtime homeowners who would save more under Save Our Homes than under the proposed new super-exemption would be allowed to keep their current savings.

South Florida Democrats said they see flaws in the plan. They said it is likely to appeal to the average voter -- permanent Florida residents -- but may not do much to help snowbirds, renters or business owners.

"It's a good political move, but it's not a good public policy to target relief based on voters rather than based on need," Seiler said. "We need to give relief to those who need it."

House Democratic leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said "longtime homeowners are the only ones who would be thoroughly protected" by the proposal.

"We really have to come up with a fix that is a better deal," Gelber said.

Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and other Republican leaders defended the plan, saying snowbirds will benefit from the first part of the tax cut plan that calls for local governments to roll back their tax rates and cap future tax increases. She also said permanent Florida residents are demanding relief.

"It's the citizens of the state telling us this needs to be done," Bogdanoff said. "It's not the Legislature imposing itself on local government."

But Palm Beach County firefighters attending Monday's meeting said they are getting the impression that too few legislators appreciate local government concerns that emergency services will be impaired.

"If they cut [property taxes], we're going to cut services," said Armand Nault, an officer in a local union representing Palm Beach County firefighters. "It's not whether we will be hurt, it's how much we will be hurt."

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Floridians will vote on reforming the property tax system on Jan. 29
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