Crist: Lawmakers may get more time on property taxes

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published  April 10, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers still have plenty of time to reach an agreement on property tax reform with four weeks left in the regular legislative session, but they'll get more if they need it, Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday.

Crist raised the possibility of an extended or special session after signing a new law he called "the point of the spear" in the drive to cut property taxes.

The law would implement a state constitutional amendment voters passed last year to let local governments increase tax exemptions for elderly, low-income homeowners.

Neither legislative chamber has yet voted on comprehensive tax reform legislation and the Senate's majority Republicans have yet to unveil a proposal.

"We have plenty of time to form consensus," Crist said. "But it better drop taxes like a rock."

Crist said wherever he goes citizens have not been shy about telling him "You gotta drop our property taxes - it's killing us."

Senate Finance and Tax Committee Chairman Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, said after the ceremony that he expects Senate GOP leaders to roll out their plan by the end of the week.

"It's exactly what we've been talking about - no new taxes," Haridopolos said. "There will be relief across the board and help for those hardest hit by the run-up in taxes."

He agreed with Crist that lawmakers have enough time to agree before the session's scheduled May 4 adjournment.

"We're in the sixth inning," Haridopolos said. "And it's a nine-inning game."

His no-new-taxes comment was in response to plans offered by House Republicans and Senate Democrats.

The House GOP plan includes a proposed state constitutional amendment that would increase sales tax from 6 percent to as much as 8.5 percent in exchange for eliminating property tax on primary homes, known as homesteads.

The first 1 percent would be an automatic tradeoff for abolishing the state's required local school tax. Local governments and voters then would have the option of eliminating other property taxes on homesteads with corresponding sales tax increases.

Senate Democrats have offered a plan to cut taxes for second homes, businesses and other non-homestead property but increase them for primary homeowners, who have received substantial breaks already from the Save Our Homes Amendment voters adopted in 1992.

The increase is designed to close a gap between taxes paid on homestead and non-homestead properties. It is designed to enhance the constitutionality of another proposal that would allow homeowners to take at least part of their Save Our Homes Amendment benefits with them when moving to a new house, a concept known as portability.

Some legal scholars say portability would violate equality guarantees of the U.S. Constitution because it would widen the gap between homestead and non-homestead taxes.

Portability, also supported by Crist, remains on the table in the Senate, Haridopolos said. He said the gap, though, would have to be closed by lowering taxes on non-homestead properties, not raising them for homeowners.

Haridopolos said Crist's proposal to double the existing homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000 also still is up for discussion.

The bill Crist signed into law (HB 333) pertains to an additional $25,000 exemption that local governments now can give to low-income homeowners who are 65 and older.

It implements the amendment that will let cities and counties double that amount to $50,000 for a total of exemption of $75,000. The low-income senior exemption affects only city and county taxes, not those levied for schools and special districts.

The bill also would allow cities and counties that already have the $25,000 senior exemption adopt the increase for this year if they pass an ordinance by June 1, a six-month extension of an existing deadline.

That provision would affect 53 counties and 158 cities. The deadline extension applies only to this year's taxes.