House, Senate panels approve plan to cut property taxes more than $31 billion
Hundreds of firefighters rally at Capitol to warn of layoffs
By Linda Kleindienst and Mark Hollis
June 13, 2007, 4:09 PM EDT
TALLAHASSEE -- House and Senate committees Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a plan to slash property taxes by more than $31 billion over the next five years - despite protests from firefighters, sheriffs and city and county commissioners that services will be decimated.
"This is government on a diet and now it will grow no faster than a family's ability to pay for it," said Senate Finance and Tax Chairman Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne.
"There is a different between diet and anorexia," countered Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City.
The committee votes set the stage for the House to begin debating the tax cut plan in a floor session set to begin at 6 p.m., and for the Senate to take up the issue Thursday. Putting the plan on a fast track sets up a possible Friday adjournment for lawmakers, who had been scheduled to meet until June 22.
Several Democrats are worried about the still unknown impact the Republican-devised plan will have on local governments and voiced concern about the lightning pace – the final version of the rollback bill and a proposed constitutional amendment to change the homestead exemption law were only made public Tuesday.
"We're being crushed into this because the leaders don't want the people to understand the implications," said House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach.
House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton, warned the Legislature could face a tax revolt if it fails to act.
"We're either going to reduce property taxes significantly and comprehensively or we are going to have a significant revolt by the people and they are not going to have any care or concern to the issues that we are trying to intelligently address," Hasner said.
No one really knows how much individual taxpayers will save in the long run, but legislative staffers estimate the average homeowner will get a $174 tax break during the first year.
The plan calls for an immediate rollback of local government tax collections and a cap on future revenues tied to growth in personal income.
The rollback for cities and counties, which would be reflected on this fall's tax bills, would range between 3 and 9 percent, depending how much they have raised taxes over the past five years. Special districts would cut by 3 percent. The caps, however, could be overridden by the local governing body.
The second prong of the plan sets up a Jan. 29 statewide vote to change the state's homestead exemption law to eliminate the current $25,000 tax break and replace it with an exemption equal to 75 percent of the first $200,000 of a home's just value and 15 percent of the next $300,000.
With hundreds of firefighters rallying at the Capitol against tax cuts, Gov. Charlie Crist tried to offer some assurance that the plan before lawmakers was a good one.
"Those services are going to be intact and they'll be taken care of," Crist said. "Because the people who serve the people of Florida ... understand what's important and how to prioritize spending."
But only hours earlier, a parade of police and fire officials told Senate Democrats they absolutely expect layoffs.
In Palm Beach County, senators learned that 170 fire department workers could lose their jobs. Miami-Dade County officials said they've already identified 746 firefighters to lay off from their 2,000-person force.
West Miami, the home of House Speaker Marco Rubio – the Legislature's strongest proponent of tax cuts – just happens to be one of those cities covered by Miami-Dade's firefighting force.
"For the record, we hope Speaker Rubio never has to call 911. We all wish him good health," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City.