Gaps in tax plans widen

Negotiators aren't meeting. Homeowners are frustrated. There's one week left.

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published  April 30, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - County officials huddled around the conference table Friday, straining for good news on the property tax debate. "It's going to be over next Friday?" Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala asked.

Senate President Ken Pruitt leaned back in his leather chair. "I am so optimistic and confident, " he said. "I'm feeling as good as I have all session."

In the Legislature, a week is a lifetime, he said.

Last week may have proved it, but not in a promising way. The first week of negotiations between the House and Senate could not have gone any worse. The few stabs at offers and counteroffers actually left the House and Senate plans further apart. By Thursday, negotiators had stopped meeting.

Gov. Charlie Crist came forward with his own proposal, which sought to split the difference between the other two, but House Speaker Marco Rubio went on Miami radio and criticized the governor's plan.

So instead of using negotiations to take two plans and work them into one, leaders in Tallahassee spent a week on the matter and turned two plans into three. With one week left to sort it out.

With a budget and scores of other high-profile issues to resolve, few share Pruitt's optimism that a deal can be struck by Friday, meaning extra days or a special session just on taxes.

"I've already booked my room at the Doubletree, " joked Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami.

Pruitt and Rubio talked Saturday but did not come to an agreement. "We just talked about making sure our folks get re-engaged, which they are I think, " Rubio said. Crist visited Rubio's office Saturday but they spent time watching the NFL draft, not discussing tax policy. "If we can get a quarterback and tax cuts this week, that's great, " joked Rubio, a die-hard Miami Dolphins fan.

"There's nowhere to go but up, " Crist said of the negotiations.

Given the division, what can still be done?

"It will be meaningful tax relief, " Pruitt predicted. But not even he could say what the package might look like.

Rubio, too, said something could be worked out. "We're going to get it done right, " he said. "We're not going to pass a Tallahassee special, which is pass something that's called reform and then doesn't do anything for anybody."

When the House conference team members huddled just before they were to meet with their Senate counterparts, they gathered around a large poster board. It had three lines on it, setting the standard for minimum tax savings House leaders would accept:

- Commercial property owners: at least $3, 300.

- Nonhomestead residential: at least $750.

- Homeowners: a minimum of $1, 200.

The poster might as well have been a stop sign.

Although House Republicans insisted it did not matter how those savings were achieved, it was immediately clear the only way to accomplish such drastic tax cuts was with Rubio's controversial plan to slash property taxes and replace some of that lost money with an increase in the state sales tax.

Through his lead negotiator, Winter Park Republican Dean Cannon, Rubio has held his ground on the plan, which includes rolling back local property tax bases to 2001 or 2003 levels.

The savings: at least $47-billion. The Senate plan, with a 2005 rollback, is between $15-billion and $20-billion. Crist's is $34-billion.

City and county leaders fear all three plans but are lining up behind the Senate because it goes easiest on their budgets. Among those who met with Pruitt Friday was Steve Spratt, county administrator for Pinellas County.

He said the Senate plan would result in a $37-million revenue drop in 2008. Compare that with the governor's proposal, which would strip $114-million, or the House's, $182-million representing 35 percent of the budget.

The House and Senate negotiators have not met since Wednesday night. Many property owners, who have flooded lawmakers with e-mails and phone calls, are frustrated with the lack of progress.

"Typical politicians, " said Lance Bornmann, 63, of Oldsmar. "That guy - what's his name? Rubio? - he's the only sharp one they've got."

Such sentiment has only caused Rubio to dig in harder, but in the end he may lose. If a compromise is worked out in the next week, it is almost certainly not going to include a higher sales tax, the one thing Senate negotiators have said they will never support.

About the only thing that is guaranteed is a rollback on local government revenues. How far back is still unknown.

One of the Senate's lead negotiators, Winter Garden Republican Daniel Webster, does not share Pruitt's optimism that a deal can be struck by Friday. But he isn't hopeless yet, either.

"It's a long shot, yeah, " Webster said. "But it's worth a try. I've always said I'll have hope until the last hour."