Push to cut property taxes falters as legislators clash over different proposals
By Linda Kleindienst and Mark Hollis
March 15, 2007
TALLAHASSEE – Warring factions in the Legislature agree they are more committed than ever to reducing Floridians' property tax bills, but so far, there's little consensus on how to do it.
And the arsenal of ideas is growing -- and changing -- with every day that passes.
"If there was a silver bullet, even a legislator could find it by now," said Senate Finance and Tax Chairman Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne. "There's no question on the will. We're just looking for the correct way."
The biggest philosophical battle is shaping up over the concept of increasing the state sales tax as a trade-off for a cut in property taxes.
Differing plans to do that have been put forth by House Republicans and Democrats, but so far have gained no traction in the Senate.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, remained adamant about the Republican plan to abolish all property taxes that are levied to pay for the costs of running local government, and replace the lost funds with a 2.5 cent increase in the state's 6-cent sales tax. That would give Florida the highest state-mandated sales tax in the country.
But, in an effort to keep his plan alive in the face of growing opposition from local elected officials and even some fellow Republicans, Rubio began to soften his stance on how much he thinks local governments should be forced to roll back current property tax rates.
At a meeting with elected officials from Miami-Dade County, Rubio admitted his plan "has taken a beating" but warned them "if this is not a concept that takes off, then you're going to be stuck with a plan that doesn't replace any revenue."
House Democrats, meanwhile, unveiled their own plan for a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax that they said would pay for substantial property tax breaks for middle- and lower-income homeowners, including new homeowners and those whose residences are priced below the median value of homes in the county where they live.
The Democrats' plan calls for a cap on local property tax increases and gives all homesteaded properties a tax exemption equal to one-half the median value of all of the homes in the county -- meaning the bigger share of the tax break would go to people living in modest homes. It also provides some financial relief for owners of non-homesteaded properties, including those owned by snowbirds and businesses.
"It makes sense for our party to show there is another way to peel the onion," said House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. He said the plan would cut taxes by more than 50 percent on half of Florida's homes.In the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans appeared cool to any increase in the sales tax. The one area where all sides appear in sync is over establishing a uniform method for the state's 67 counties to assess the value of property for tax purposes.
Critics have said that some property appraisers, such as Palm Beach County's Gary Nikolits, put more emphasis than others, such as Broward County's Lori Parrish, on fixing the value of a property based on a parcel's potential use rather than its actual use. The result, these critics argue, are higher tax bills for many Floridians whose homes, for example, sit on land that could be developed into a beachfront condo complex.
Republicans sponsoring the change, a key component of yet another tax-cut plan developing in the Senate, say that requiring assessments to focus on a property's current use will be a fairer system.
The result could wipe millions of dollars from tax rolls that now go to run cities, counties, public hospitals, school districts and state government.
"As far as I'm concerned, they [public agencies] weren't supposed to have this money in the first place," said Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican sponsoring a House bill that changes the appraisal system.