Legislature's tax-relief plan to go on Jan. 29 ballot
House, Senate reach accord on scaled-back plan
By Linda Kleindienst and Josh Hafenbrack
October 30, 2007
It's now up to Florida voters to say whether the state Legislature has given them the property tax relief they want.
On Monday, the state House and Senate approved a trimmed-down tax break package they hope will kick-start the state's ailing housing market by doubling the $25,000 homestead exemption and allowing homesteaders to take Save Our Homes benefits with them when they buy a new house.
The average homeowner will see a $220 annual tax break.
It will take a 60 percent vote of those who turn out for the Jan. 29 special election to make the tax breaks part of the state constitution.
"What happened today is historic," said Gov. Charlie Crist, who campaigned last year on the need to provide tax relief. "It's now in the hands of the people."
The plan leaves the current Save Our Home provision untouched, capping tax increases on homesteaded property at 3 percent annually.
Very similar to what the Senate passed nearly two weeks ago, the bipartisan plan crafted by Senate leaders echoes an agreement that both chambers had with Crist before they started this, their fourth special session of the year, on Oct. 12.
The Senate, hoping to break a legislative logjam, passed the proposed constitutional amendment in a 35-4 vote early Monday, shipped it over to the House and went home. Rather than have nothing to put on the January ballot, a reluctant House signed off on the Senate plan in a 97-18 vote after hours of debate.
In a rare move, Speaker Marco Rubio made an impassioned speech from the House floor urging members to support the plan.
Estimated to give $12.4 billion in tax relief over five years, the plan gives the biggest breaks to longtime Florida residents who want to buy a new home but have been reluctant because of the higher property taxes they'd likely face, even on smaller homes.
"Portability" is considered a linchpin of the tax plan because it will allow longtime homesteaders to move and take their accrued Save Our Homes tax break with them. Senate leaders say their polls show that 20 percent to 30 percent of the state's homeowners want to move into other homes but are reticent because of the massive tax hikes they might face.
The plan would allow homesteaders to take up to $500,000 in their Save Our Homes savings with them when moving into a new home.
"It is an economic booster," said Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster. R-Winter Garden, of the portability provision. "This allows people to move elsewhere. They can buy a bigger or better home, pay a little more in taxes, but not get hit with the whole load."
But the plan gives no extra relief for first-time home buyers, low-income elderly, affordable housing units or owners of "working waterfront" properties being priced out of business by soaring assessments.
And it provides nowhere near the relief for permanent residents that House members had called for with their plan to cap non-homestead assessments at 5 percent and establish a new homestead exemption scheme equal to 40 percent of a county's median home value. That plan would have given Broward and Palm Beach County homeowners a homestead exemption of about $100,000.
Juan Lopez, a Miami Lakes homeowner, said he'll grudgingly vote for the amendment in January.
"The other option is not getting anything and missing out on saving $220," he said, adding the plan's savings are the equivalent of one month's electric bill or maybe two weeks of groceries. "Another example of politicians being out of touch with the common person's struggles."
Although today is the deadline for putting a proposed constitutional amendment on the Jan. 29 ballot, Senate leaders made it clear on Monday that they wouldn't stick around the Capitol for another day to continue bickering with House members over the tax package.
"It was as good as we could have gotten," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City.
But the House made plain its disgust with the Senate for disbanding after the vote, smarting that the Senate's maneuvering left little choice but to accept the last-minute package.
"Our [senators] across the hall didn't work for the best bill," said Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach. "They worked for the best flight home."
Some powerful lobbying groups, including the state's teacher union, could campaign against the amendment because of speculation it could cost public schools $2.5 billion over the next five years. Senate staff members estimate the plan could cost Broward and Palm Beach counties' schools $275 million and $332 million, respectively.
"If you balance a tax break on public school children, that is simply not a good choice," said House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach.
But Senate leaders contend that increased economic activity caused by people buying and selling homes again should make up for that loss with more revenue going into taxes the state levies on real estate transactions.
Linda Kleindienst can be reached at email@example.com or 850-224-6214.