Legislature adjourns without property tax reform

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Linda Kleindienst, Mark Hollis and Josh Hafenbrack
Published May 5, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature lurched to a close Friday afternoon while leaving undone the biggest task members faced during the past 60 days -- property tax reform.

The House and Senate adjourned shortly after 4 p.m., almost eight hours before the session's official midnight adjournment -- after agreeing to freeze rates paid by customers of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. through January 2009.

Postponing the tax battle until a special session next month muted the last-minute deal making and frenzy that normally accompany a session's last day. Instead, spurts of lawmaking were broken by long recesses and recognition ceremonies.

While the Senate debated abortion rights, the House celebrated Cinco de Mayo, with many members wearing sombreros. As the Senate gave its staff standing ovations, the House voted for automatic annual increases in the cost of driving on state toll roads, including Florida's Turnpike.

Among the issues that died when chamber leaders gaveled the session to an early close were a sales-tax rebate to help build a new ballpark for the Florida Marlins and a fix to Florida's no-fault insurance law.

"I expected to be working around the clock. ... I was looking forward to that 11:59 rush to get the last few bills in," said freshman state Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton. "I can't believe I have two hours for lunch."

Immediately after the session's close, Gov. Charlie Crist joined legislative leaders in the rotunda that separates House and Senate chambers and hailed the session as a victory for the people and his own political agenda.

While not getting approval for the property tax cuts he has sought, Crist, a former state senator, emphasized that other bills he sought were sent to him for his signature, including one that makes it easier to put probation violators back in prison.

"You have protected Florida with this legislative session," Crist told legislators.

He applauded them for changing how public school teachers will be awarded bonuses, for funds set aside for Everglades restoration, cleanup of Lake Okeechobee and helping the state reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, as well for agreeing that a new paper-trail ballot system should be in place in time for the 2008 presidential election.

He also expressed little doubt that the Legislature will succeed in slashing property taxes when it reconvenes June 12-22.

Members failed to pass several of Crist's budget priorities, such as requests to pay for anti-viral drugs to deal with a potential bird flu pandemic and the allocation of state money for stem cell research. But Crist cast even these defeats in rosy terms.

"I think the working relationship [between the House and Senate] is as good as I've ever seen it," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors. "Last night we were all over at the lieutenant governor's house, talking about where we can go with this. And this governor has instilled a kind of can-do optimism."

In welcoming Crist to the Capitol's fourth floor, Senate President Ken Pruitt held up a rock with the word "Patience" written on it. Crist has repeatedly told lawmakers that he wants to see Floridians' property taxes "drop like a rock."

"We're going to make property taxes drop like a rock in June," promised Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

Although tempers sometimes flared on the final day, there was plenty of levity as well.

In the House, which passed a bill mandating physical education for elementary school students, it was announced that a weight-loss challenge issued early in the session resulted in a 213-pound weight loss from members that participated. The male winner was freshman Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, who dropped 17 pounds.

During a brief floor celebration for Cinco de Mayo, House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, looked out at members wearing sombreros and quipped, "It's a bipartisan embarrassment. You know, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle."