State lawmakers have spent most of the legislative session debating how to cut property taxes -- yet they passed a state budget Thursday that depends on a half-billion-dollar increase in property taxes levied by schools to make the numbers work.
Legislators justified the move, saying it's really not a property-tax increase. Instead, they said, they are just using money that will come in anyway because of the increase in property values.
''They'd never let me get away with saying that,'' said John W. Smith, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities.
Cities and counties have borne the brunt of the criticism in the property-tax debate, with lawmakers accusing them of reaping the benefits of the state's real estate boom without rolling back tax rates.
But in a year in which Florida's economy has cooled down and state tax collections have tumbled, legislators themselves are using the growth in property-tax collections to help give the state's 67 school districts an increase of $1.23 billion for their day-to-day expenses. Of that total, $546 million will come from local property taxes.
''That goes against everything they have been trying to do,'' said Miami-Dade School Board Chairman Gus Barrera, who noted that this year's budget will actually require the school board to slightly raise its taxing rate.
Added Broward School Board member Eleanor Sobel: ``I think the state should spend more on education and not shift the burden to local governments.''
For more than 30 years, Florida has relied on a complicated school-spending formula that tries to ensure that every child gets the same type of education regardless of where they live. In order for school districts to qualify for state money, they are required to generate some of the money they need from local property taxes. But in recent years the GOP-controlled Legislature has relied more and more on the growth in property values, and less on state tax dollars, to pay for school funding.
That trend continues with the $71.9 billion state budget that the Legislature approved Thursday despite criticism from Democrats.
But Republican leaders defended the use of a property-tax increase this year, saying that school funding is supposed to be split between the state and local school districts.
''We are in a partnership,'' said Sen. Lisa Carlton, an Osprey Republican and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican and top lieutenant to House Speaker Marco Rubio, admitted it was a ''paradox,'' but noted that the House's property-tax plan would have swapped a one-cent sales-tax increase for the elimination of all school property taxes paid by Floridians who enjoy a homestead tax exemption.
''We're looking for far-reaching, comprehensive tax reform across the board,'' said Rivera.