Legislative panel OKs sweeping tax cuts as Democrats protest potential impact

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Mark Hollis
Published March 8, 2007


TALLAHASSEE– Only a day after lawmakers hailed a new era of cooperation at the state Capitol, Democrats complained bitterly Wednesday that Republicans were ramming through the Florida House a property tax-cut plan that critics say will lead to decreased police protection and closings of parks, libraries and programs for seniors.

On a party-line vote, Republicans on the House Government Efficiency and Accountability Council approved a $5.8-billion overhaul of the property tax system that would force Florida's counties, cities and special taxing districts to roll back rates to what they were on Jan. 1, 2001. The proposal would allow only modest adjustments for population growth and inflation, and according to House analysts, would yield an average statewide tax cut of 19 percent.

Reductions, however, would vary widely by county and city. Broward County residents, according to a House Majority Office analysis, would see a $2,213 average annual savings in their property tax bill. For Fort Lauderdale homeowners, the reported drop would be $2,867 a year.

In Palm Beach County, the average estimated reduction in property tax would be $2,879 yearly per homeowner, and $4,285 for residents of West Palm Beach, according to the analysis.

But the taxpayer savings would come with a steep price for local governments, and likely the services they provide. Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, the only local elected official to testify at Wednesday's House hearing, warned that any mandatory cut in local property tax revenues would have to be offset by stiff increases in user fees, such as charging people who want to borrow a book from the library.

"Counties will face draconian choices," warned Sarah Blakely, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties, noting the state's 67 counties provide many essential services, including libraries, parks, roads, medical services, and juvenile justice programs.

South Florida cities would be among those taking the biggest revenue hits if the Republican plan passed , according to municipal government lobbyists. Palm Beach Gardens would likely see a $22.4 million annual loss in income; Hollywood could be stripped of $40.2 million. Hallandale Beach would lose $11.3 million. West Palm Beach would have $36.3 million less to spend. And Riviera Beach's revenue would drop by about $12.6 million yearly.

However, on the second day of the 60-day legislative session, Democrats failed to persuade Republicans to delay the first procedural vote on the tax plan, despite warnings that its full effects were not yet known.

"What's the rush?" asked Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston. "Why are we railroading this through without careful deliberation and without weighing the impacts to cities and counties?"

Republicans refused to slow down, citing grassroots demand statewide for a halt to escalating property taxes.

"Procrastination equals inaction," said Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter. "We need to do something. There's a demand for relief."

The measure cleared the council, 10-5, and now heads to another House committee, possibly as soon as Friday.

Lawmakers are still far from enacting any changes to the state's property tax system, however. House Democrats are developing a plan of their own. Neither party has yet offered one in the Senate. And Gov. Charlie Crist has his own ideas, including a doubling of the homestead exemption to $50,000. In Wednesday's debate, several Republicans argued that local government spending has run amok, and needs to be tamed. "Why should we allow a system to continue that allows these run-ups on citizens' home-ownership costs and to allow these local governments to budget that way?" said Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee.

Lieberman, the Broward commissioner, said her county's $850 million budget could see a cut of $196 million under the House Republican plan. She said county spending has risen in part because of demands by Congress and the Legislature to increase funding for homeland security, which she said had tripled in her county since 9-11.