House panel pushes local tax rollback
State House leaders fast-tracked a bill to reduce property taxes $5.8 billion amid warnings from local governments and Democrats.
BY MARY ELLEN KLAS AND YUDY PINEIRO
IN FAVOR: Rep. Julio Robaina says the cuts to county governments will help reign in misuse of money.
TALLAHASSEE --In a rush to show that lawmakers are serious about cutting property taxes, a House council passed a controversial bill Wednesday to sharply roll back local taxes, which would save property owners statewide as much as $5.8 billion.
The House Efficiency and Accountability Council ignored repeated calls from Democrats to slow down the debate and voted 10-5 along party lines for a measure to force counties to roll back local taxes to where they were in fiscal year 2000-01, plus an additional amount to account for population growth and inflation.
As Florida's counties warned of ''Draconian choices'' they would have to make and Democrats complained of being railroaded, the discord put a quick end to the bipartisan harmony that House leaders said would mark the 60-day session that began Tuesday.
None of that mattered to House Republicans, who have adopted House Speaker Marco Rubio's urging to ''be a little impatient'' about moving ahead on a plan, which has just one more committee stop before the full House votes on it.
The tax rollback would be the first step in a two-phase approach House leaders are touting; the second is a constitutional amendment to do away with all taxes on homesteaded property and replace them with a 2 ½-cent hike in the statewide sales tax.
The proposed rollback would save taxpayers in Miami-Dade an estimated 35 percent on their county taxes. The hit to the county: between $613 million and $725 million. The savings to taxpayers in Broward: 22 percent. The hit to Broward coffers: at least $198 million.
''Counties must decide with this bill whether we're going to fund libraries, the softball player at the recreational park, the child in the burning attic, the grandfather who has a heart attack, or the woman who has a burglar at her door,'' Sarah Bleakley, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties, told lawmakers. ``Which one of those programs do you all think are frills?''
In Miami-Dade, county officials say $5.2 billion of their $7 billion budget is spending required by state and federal law, airport or port services contracts or is being used to pay back debt. An additional $1.3 billion goes to county medical examiners, police patrols, jails and juvenile justice, the county health trust and elections offices.
''That leaves $500 million of expenses that someone says you don't have to do,'' said Jennifer Glazer-Moon, the county budget director. ``But that includes the administration of the county, the parks department, human services department and cultural programs.''
Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman told the House committee that county officials agree Florida's ''archaic'' tax structure needs an overhaul, ``but we disagree this is the right fix.''
''You want to be careful as you're pushing on one side you're not creating a bigger bulge on the other side,'' she said. She warned that Broward and other counties could be forced to start charging user fees for, say, borrowing books at the library.
Rep. Julio Robaina, a Miami Republican, said he felt no sympathy for county governments, blasting Miami-Dade County for squandering millions over the years. He predicted the rollback will ``make the county commissioners more than ever vigilant over every dollar.''
Council Chairman Rep. Andy Gardiner of Orlando noted that the proposal allows counties to get around the rollback by a two-thirds vote of the county commission.
'So if there are concerns about `Draconian cuts' or cutting police departments or softball players, can't they go out, discuss that in a community and by a two-thirds vote override essentially what we're asking them to do?'' he said.
Owners of homesteaded property would see the smallest decline in their property taxes -- $433 million across the state. Owners of second homes and other residential real estate, who have shouldered a larger share of the tax burden in recent years, would reap $767 million in savings, while business properties would see the greatest savings -- $3.35 billion.
But Democrats complained that the fast pace of the bill's progress, coupled by the short notice they were given to prepare for the vote, has forced lawmakers to vote on a measure even though they have no clear idea how their local governments will handle it.
By contrast, the Senate is taking its time on property taxes. As of Wednesday, senators had not yet come up with their own plan.
Rep. Dan Gelber, the House Democratic leader from Miami Beach, noted that his city would be among the hardest hit in the state -- a 51 percent cut in its tax rolls and budget. Because the city has paid for its growth, rather than resorted to issuing bonds, the House scheme blindly penalizes the city for being responsible, he said.
''We are about to make the biggest decision we've ever made in the dark,'' he said. ``One thing we will not do is cede this incredibly important issue to rank politics.''
The discord on the session's second day wasn't the first sign that party differences would dominate the debate.
The Florida GOP has launched a website touting the House's tax plan and promoting the constitutional amendment. Rubio and his top deputies have sent out e-mails urging Republicans across the state to click on www.nomoreproperty
Among the information on the site, it calls the governor's proposed solution -- doubling the homestead exemption -- a ''band-aid'' approach to the problem.
Republican Party spokesman Jeff Sadosky defended the website, even though Senate Republicans have not endorsed the House proposal.
''What the party is endorsing is getting the issue out there,'' he said.