By MARC CAPUTO AND MARY ELLEN KLAS
Published September 28, 2007
TALLAHASSEE -- As legislators started closing one of the state budget's largest holes ever, they were preoccupied Thursday with a multi-billion dollar issue that wasn't even on the agenda: property taxes.
House and Senate leaders are at a standoff over whether and how to fix three words in the ballot language of the property tax amendment that caused a judge this week to throw it off the Jan. 29 ballot.
House Speaker Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist want to resolve the matter during next week's special session, but the Senate won't budge. Senate leaders blindsided the House earlier this week when they announced they would appeal the court ruling rather than pursue a fix.
''There's no guarantee the appeal process is going to deliver us the relief people are going to expect,'' Rubio said Thursday in a public television interview, adding it could be February before the court rules.
Rep. Frank Attkisson, a Kissimmee Republican and sponsor of one of the property-tax plans that passed in June, said that while the House is ''frustrated,'' the Senate is too ''laid back'' over the issue.
Rubio and Crist's advisors are trying to entice the Senate into voting on a way to improve the ballot language that the judge found ``misleading.''
Crist and Rubio have promised huge tax savings that have yet to be delivered. The Senate, which had to be dragged into approving the two-phase property-tax plan in June, never boasted about big savings because its members were concerned about the effects of cuts on local-government services.
Now that the Leon County Circuit Court ruling has left the Legislature with what the Senate originally sought, Senate President Ken Pruitt seems determined to let the issue play out in court and has all but ruled out doing anything for the special session starting Wednesday.
Pruitt said in a statement that he wants senators focused on the budget -- lawmakers' one constitutional obligation -- during the special session.
The feud could spill over into other issues. Legislators were rumored to be closer to agreement on a plan to restore the state's no-fault auto insurance program, which is scheduled to expire on Monday. But by late Thursday, House and Senate leaders still hadn't agreed upon an agenda.
The two chambers appear in agreement on handling some of the most controversial budget issues. Among them:
• Raising university and community college tuition rates.
• Reducing spending on people with mental disabilities.
• Shaving $138 million from K-12 education.
• Cutting $113 million for nursing homes.
• Trimming $32 million for hospitals that treat ''non-citizen'' immigrants -- some of whom may be here unlawfully -- which could cost Miami-Dade's Jackson Memorial Hospital $10 million.
But as House and Senate committees met Thursday, they couldn't seem to avoid the issue of property taxes.
Democrats wondered if the Legislature was making things worse for the poor, sick, elderly and children after it passed a law aimed at capping and rolling back local property tax rates.
Republicans, especially in the House, held firm to the belief that the state's budget crisis is the result of a sour economy and the only way out is to revive consumer spending through property tax cuts.
''It's more than a cross our fingers'' kind of budget, said Rep. Ray Sansom, a Destin Republican and House budget chief. ``We have to reduce property taxes. Crossing our fingers is being in denial but, if we cut property taxes, it's being realistic.''
Democrats noted that cutting property taxes under the constitutional amendment piece of the tax-cut package approved in June, means schools have to be cut nearly $7 billion. They doubt whether the Legislature will ever make good on its promise to restore the money.
Under the proposed constitutional amendment, homestead exemptions would expand from $25,000 to a maximum $195,000 for a home with an assessed value of $500,000 -- if homeowners agree to give up their Save Our Homes protections.
If approved, the amendment would eventually eliminate the Save Our Homes program that now limits the increase in assessed value of homesteaded property to 3 percent a year. Under the so-called ''super-exemption'', homeowners can keep their Save Our Homes protection -- but only as long as they own their home. They can also give it up, but no new homeowners would be eligible for it.
In ruling to strike the proposed property tax amendment from the Jan. 29 ballot, Leon Circuit Judge Charles Francis said on Monday that the language was ''misleading'' and ``confusing.''
The Legislature said in its ballot language that ''everyone'' would get a minimum $50,000 homestead exemption that revises and preserves -- rather than phases out -- Save Our Homes.
Pruitt, without discussing his plan in depth with Rubio, issued a statement that he just wanted to appeal the judge's decision. Rubio said he wanted to do more, suggesting he wants to either fix the language or re-open the issue with even deeper cuts.
Some Republican senators, such as Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, say they want to revive the issue because many people thought the property tax cuts would be deeper than what they've seen on their recent tax bills, which Crist repeatedly said would ``drop like a rock.''
''I'd like us to focus on this issue sooner rather than later,'' Fasano said. ``But I understand what my senate president is saying. This can be a distraction.''
Meanwhile, Crist's advisors are quietly talking to Democrats, asking them to support a plan to revisit the property tax issue next week.
The issue has already consumed lawmakers all year. During the regular lawmaking session last spring, Rubio dominated the debate with a plan to eliminate homestead taxes in favor of raising the state sales tax. His chief tax negotiator, Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park, acknowledged Thursday that the House members were '''the aggressors'' when it came to the issue.
The Senate responded with a plan to cut less than $15 billion over five years. The House compromised with $30 billion. They finally met in the middle in June by passing two plans: the Senate plan to force local governments to rollback their tax bills and the House plan for the constitutional amendment with the super-exemption savings.
With the judge's ruling, the Senate now has little incentive to go along with the House.
Senate Democratic leader Steve Geller of Cooper City, a friend of the Republican governor, said it's unlikely the Senate will reopen the issue because trust in the House is slipping.
''Marco wants us to negotiate even bigger cuts for a tax package that we passed months ago,'' he said. "But [it] probably can't even pass the Senate now.''