Property tax relief plan headed to House floor
By Mark Hollis
March 17, 2007
TALLAHASSEE – Florida House Republicans on Friday advanced a whopping $5.5 billion property tax cut plan that would slash local government revenues severely for many South Florida cities and counties, but result in an average 18 percent tax savings for homeowners statewide.
"Overspending, gluttony, avarice, excess, maybe greed," Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who represents parts of south Broward County, said. "This bill is all about reining in some of that excess spending [by local governments] of the last six or seven years."
Though it's one of the largest-ever tax-relief bills to emerge in Florida, the measure, which now heads to the House floor for a vote by the entire chamber, remains in doubt because of opposition in the Senate. Senators say it would too bite too painfully into local government services, such as police and emergency medical assistance.
"For law enforcement, there is no help on the horizon, no cavalry coming," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, who also opposed the cuts. If the bill becomes law, Seiler said, sheriff's offices and police departments in Broward and Palm Beach counties could lose 20 percent to 30 percent of their funding.
Republicans pushed the proposal through the House Policy and Budget Council on a nearly partisan 24-7 vote, but only after tacking on amendments to shield South Florida's taxpayer-funded hospital districts, as well as local children's services councils and 30 rural counties, from its full impact.
At the moment, the South Broward Hospital District takes in more than $66 million a year in property tax revenue, and the North Broward district $122 million, according to Anthony Carvalho, a lobbyist for a consortium of hospital districts. That revenue, which pays primarily for health programs that serve the poor and uninsured, would have been markedly reduced under the Republican plan as originally written.
During a seven-hour hearing, legislators voted down other amendments that were proposed by South Florida Democrats and designed to protect local government spending on law enforcement and emergency and disaster response from being affected by the drop in revenue.
The Republicans' bill, HB 7001, would roll local property taxes back to their 2000-01 levels with some allowance for inflation and population growth, and an exemption for taxes levied for public schools.
In killing Democratic proposals to exempt law enforcement and other priority services from any ensuing cuts in funding, Republicans noted the bill would allow local governments the option of raising taxes above the 2000-2001 level if two-thirds of their elected leaders wanted it.
Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said Democrats wanted to micromanage local governments by telling them what departments to fund.
"Unless we do something dramatic," she said, "citizens of the state will not be able to afford a home."
On the final vote, three South Florida Democrats sided with the Republican majority: Reps. Shelley Vana of Lantana, Ron Saunders of Key West and Yolly Roberson of Miami.
The bill is the first part of a two-part plan proposed by House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and other House Republicans.
The second segment, which could come to the council for a separate vote next week, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would abolish property taxes on Floridians' primary residences and replace lost revenue with a 2.5 cent per dollar increase in the state sales tax, to 8.5 cents. The amendment would need approval from the Legislature and voters in a referendum.
Jill Dorson Chi, who owns two small businesses on Amelia Island north of Jacksonville, joined Republicans in complaining about local governments' lobbying efforts against the tax cuts.
"Rather than taking a good, hard look at their spending, counties and cities across Florida are spending my hard-earned tax collars on lobbyists and lawyers and redundant studies," she said. "They are using scare tactics and touting cuts in police, libraries and vital services rather than cutting fat."
House Republican Leader Marsha Bowen, of Haines City, told reporters Rubio's team is trying to step up pressure on cities and counties to back the constitutional amendment, because a hike in the sales tax would refill municipal coffers depleted by a fall in property tax revenue.
"It would be prudent on the part of the cities and counties to start looking at that [Rubio plan to amend the constitution]," Bowen said.