Property tax cuts are supposed to be the top priority in Tallahassee, but budget writers have saved the punch line for the fine print. In the proposed House and Senate spending bills, next year's public education budget relies on an additional $545-million from local property taxes. Property owners, the joke is on you.
To appreciate the scale of this hypocrisy, let's first set the context. Lawmakers have spent months berating mayors and county commissioners for taking advantage of soaring property values and raking in more tax money even if they kept the tax rate the same. They have threatened to cut city and county budgets by as much as 20 percent. They have proposed reducing property taxes statewide by raising the sales tax by 2.5 cents, making it the nation's highest.
But the single largest portion of every property tax bill is not for cities or counties or fire districts. It is for schools. And the school tax rate, called "required local millage," is determined by the Legislature. Furthermore, lawmakers have nearly doubled the school property tax in the past seven years as they have shifted more of the burden from the state to local property owners.
So now lawmakers are defending their proposed 7.4 percent increase in school tax revenue by arguing they are not raising the tax rate. That is exactly the same claim they branded as doublespeak when offered by city and county officials. Once again, this is a Legislature demanding that local governments act as it says, not as it acts itself.
House Speaker Marco Rubio has tried to deflect criticism by noting his tax relief plan would eliminate the state-ordered school property tax on homesteads and replace it with a higher sales tax. But his plan suffers from his obsession with raising the sales tax rate, which would be economically regressive to the point of being punitive.
A better approach is to look at the tax freeloaders. Florida exempts some $19-billion in goods and services from the sales tax. Closing just some of the loopholes would be a more equitable way to dramatically reduce school property taxes, including those paid by non-homesteads.
Lawmakers don't need constitutional amendments or new distribution formulas or voter approval to reduce property taxes in Florida. They need only look in the mirror and see they are a big part of the problem. Until they quit taking the easy way out by relying on soaring property values and avoiding their responsibility to properly fund public education, they have no standing to criticize the spending habits of local governments.