Gov. Crist says education won't lose out in special property tax session
By Linda Kleindienst
Sun-Sentinel.com Tallahassee Bureau
June 12, 2007, 10:00 AM EDT
TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday worked quickly to dispel fears that public schools would lose billions if Florida voters approve a constitutional change aimed at lowering property taxes.
"This Legislature has proved itself a tremendous friend of education," Crist said only hours before the Legislature was set to begin a special session to provide property tax relief.
"We have to make sure education gets the funding it deserves. 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."
Democrats raised the alarm Monday over a loss in school funds if voters agree to supersize the state's homestead exemption, which gives permanent residents a break on their property taxes. A plan developed by the Legislature's Republican leaders would replace the current $25,000 homestead exemption with a plan to exempt 75 percent of the first $200,000 of a home's value and 15 percent of the next $300,000 of value.
Legislative staff projections are that schools would lose $2 billion the first year and more than $7 billion over five years, although House and Senate leaders have vowed the state will find the money elsewhere to fill the gap.
"They're saying we'll find the money somewhere," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller, of Cooper City. "If we can find the money, why did the state raise school property taxes by more than $500 million this year? 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."
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state teacher union, said the loss of more than $7 billion is a "nearly insurmountable hurdle to funding schools and students. Our public education system deserves to be funded on more than an assurance."
But Crist said that the tax package being considered by lawmakers, who are scheduled to be in session until June 22, is bound to reinvigorate Florida's 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 hikes and the constitutional amendment, which Republican leaders want to put on a Jan. 29 ballot, the same day as Florida's presidential preference primary.
"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."
House and Senate committees were scheduled to consider the tax package and take public testimony on it today, but that has been delayed at least a day as staff continues to scramble to address questions being raised about the impact of the plan.