Legislators debate new plan for cutting property taxes
By Linda Kleindienst
Tallahassee Bureau Chief
October 11, 2007
Florida's top lawmakers agreed Wednesday to keep legislators in Tallahassee an extra 10 days to tackle a scaled-back package of property tax cuts that would save the average homeowner about $214 a year but preserve Save Our Homes tax protections.
If it is approved, voters will decide Jan. 29 whether to write the still emerging tax relief plan into the state's constitution.
To give the proposal an airing, House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt agreed Wednesday to prolong the current special legislative session until Oct. 22. Gov. Charlie Crist will officially place property taxes on the agenda.
The Legislature has been meeting in special session to cut the state budget, but was scheduled to adjourn Friday.
Rubio gave only lukewarm endorsement to the property tax package that Crist, a fellow Republican, developed in concert with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders and announced Tuesday. The governor's plan would reduce property taxes in Florida by about $6.3 billion over four years, hitting city and county governments hardest but leaving school districts mostly unscathed.
For the owner of a $275,000 primary residence who chooses to remain in the home, the tax savings would amount to $214 a year, Crist's office estimates.
"There isn't going to be any celebration on that," said Rubio, R-West Miami. "But the agreement we have ... is probably what we can do within the time constraints and considering the political realities."
Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, was more upbeat.
"It's a good day for Florida taxpayers whenever you're talking about adding another $6 billion in tax cuts to the billions of dollars that were already cut this year," he said.
While savings for the average homeowner may be small, the linchpin of the new plan is "portability" — allowing Floridians to transfer at least some of the tax protections of the Save Our Home clause of the state constitution from one home to another when they move.
"The single thing I've received the most complaints about is portability — that will solve half the problem," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller, of Cooper City, whom the governor credited with helping break the logjam on the issue.
South Florida legislators in particular have said they think including portability could be the key to getting Floridians to approve the measure. It takes a 60 percent vote in a referendum to change the state constitution.
The proposed tax package, which is still being negotiated by legislators and Crist's office, also calls for doubling the current $25,000 homestead exemption. It would also provide breaks for first-time home buyers and eliminate property taxes for seniors who meet certain poverty guidelines.
Rubio and House Majority Leader Adam Hasner said the tax savings being envisaged aren't as big as they should be because of the need to find middle ground that the House and Senate, and Democrats and Republicans, can support.
"Any property tax relief plan that requires this much consensus from Democrats is a plan that doesn't provide much in the form of tax relief," said Hasner, R-Boca Raton.
The state's leaders also must beat an Oct. 30 deadline to get a ballot initiative ready for the Jan. 29 election. A proposed constitutional amendment on property taxes that lawmakers in June had placed on the ballot, and that would have led to more generous tax cuts, was removed by a state circuit judge who declared it misleading.
But Rubio made it clear that after this special session ends, he plans to push for more drastic action, perhaps even calling for a citizen petition drive to place deeper tax cuts on next fall's ballot.
Earlier this year, Rubio called for eliminating all property taxes and replacing the lost revenue with an increase in the state sales tax.
"It's something I believe in," he said Wednesday.