Legislators get closer to deal -- no sales tax hike, big cuts in property taxes
By Linda Kleindienst and Mark Hollis
May 17, 2007
TALLAHASSEE -- Staring down the barrel of a special session in less than a month, Florida legislators appear to be nearing accord on the framework of a deal to reduce property taxes.
But while the concepts may be gelling, there's no agreement on numbers and no way to tell how a final deal would affect the pocketbooks of homeowners, renters and businesses, or how deep budget cuts could be for local governments.
This much at least now appears likely:
The state sales tax won't increase.
There will be major tax relief for new homeowners, prospective homebuyers, snowbirds and renters, as well as small business owners.
Longtime homeowners who have benefited from the Save Our Homes tax cap will get additional relief.
Local government revenue will be capped.
"Before we were talking apples and oranges. Now we're all dealing with apples," said House Democratic leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. "We're just going to have to figure out the most efficient delivery system."
Last week, in a crucial policy shift, House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, endorsed a proposal to expand the state's homestead exemption, which he said would halve the average homeowner's property tax bill.
On Wednesday, House Democrats unveiled a retooled version of their own homestead exemption plan, which they first proposed in March. The updated plan purportedly would save $2,325 a year for homeowners in Broward County and $2,370 in Palm Beach County.
A joint committee of the House and Senate will begin meeting Monday in hopes of writing a tax-cut package that legislators can approve when they reconvene June 12 for a 10-day special session.
Politicians from both chambers, as well as both parties, agree they must act fast to ease tax burdens that have cast a pall on the state's housing market and economy, leaving many Floridians trapped in their homes and others unable to buy a place of their own.
"All ideas are welcomed as long as we keep in mind what this debate is about: It is about how much taxpayers can afford to pay, not how much government wants," said Rubio, who appears to have backed off his call to eliminate property taxes on primary homes in exchange for an increase in the sales tax.
Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the Melbourne Republican who leads the Senate Finance and Tax Committee, said legislators were not on the verge of sealing a deal, but he expects a lot more consensus in the coming weeks.
"(Rubio) moving off the sales tax swap is a great first step and we're making headway toward providing not just (tax) relief but some reform," Haridopolos said.
Gov. Charlie Crist, during a visit to Fort Lauderdale, said Wednesday he is optimistic the special session will lower property taxes.
"It's a bipartisan, really a nonpartisan approach, where we all realize we have an obligation to work together to do what's right and get this relief to the people of our state. And it's going to come," Crist said.
Some legislators remained skeptical.
"We haven't agreed on a percentage or figure to cut taxes. We haven't agreed on what (relief) goes to (homeowners and business)," said Senate Democratic leader Steve Geller, of Cooper City. "So, what have we agreed on?"
Monitoring the dealings in Tallahassee from afar, Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish said she has become increasingly disenchanted.
Ideas now under consideration, Parrish said, would be difficult if not impossible to put into effect in 2007 because they require a statewide vote on changing the constitution -- which can't happen before fall.
"People are expecting relief this year, but the Legislature has waited too long to have any impact on tax bills this year," Parrish said.
Joe Roberto, president of Fort Lauderdale's Roberto & Associates title agency and a tax reform activist, said legislators cannot afford to again disappoint constituents who have yet to see the cuts in hurricane insurance premiums they were promised after a January special session.
"Most sellers are moving out of state," Roberto said. "They can't jump in the moving truck quick enough because they believe the state Legislature is so inept at dealing with insurance and taxes."
Meanwhile, local government officials such as Palm Beach County Administrator Bob Weisman are waiting to see how much their revenue -- and budgets -- will be sliced.
"I've used the word `devastating,'" he said. "It's a question of how far do they go?"