Legislators at odds over tax bill again

After a judge axes the property tax plan, the House leader wants to fix it and the Senate leader forget it.

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times


Published September 26, 2007

A day after a judge ruled the Legislature's proposal to increase the homestead exemption is misleading, legislative leaders clashed Tuesday over how to resolve the problem - putting the two chambers at odds once again over property taxes.

Senate President Ken Pruitt and House Speaker Marco Rubio agreed on appealing the ruling, which removed the proposal from the Jan. 29 presidential primary ballot.

But the two men diverged in their willingness to rework the plan during the special budget session next week. Pruitt prefers to leave the issue alone, but Rubio insists all options must be considered.

Rubio, the 36-year-old Miami Republican, who is seeking to build a statewide profile on the tax issue, cast the legal snag as an "opportunity" to pursue a broader menu of property tax cuts - something he has desired since losing a showdown with the Senate over taxes in the spring.

"We must do everything in our power to preserve the Jan. 29 special election, even if that means addressing the property tax issue in the upcoming special session," Rubio said.

The competing wills of Pruitt and Rubio could seriously threaten the proposed constitutional amendment, which would grant homestead exemptions of up to $195,000 on homes up to $500,000. If they can't agree to address the amendment during the special session, their only hope to keep the measure on the January ballot rests with the courts.

Officially, the appeal must come from the Secretary of State's Office, which was the defendant in the suit brought by the mayor of Weston, a city in Broward County. No decision had been made Tuesday night.

Another option would be for the Legislature to hold another special session before Oct. 29, the deadline for getting something on the January ballot.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday that the court ruling may be a "blessing in disguise," because the re-do could open the door for even bigger tax cuts.

That appeared to mesh with Rubio's view, but Crist did not say whether the ruling should be appealed or that the Legislature should pass a new tax proposal during the special session.

"I just want it to be on the ballot," Crist said.

Adding to the mix Tuesday were some Democrats who vowed to flex their power to prevent a reworked amendment on the ballot. The move requires approval by three-fourths of both chambers.

"Jan. 29th isn't going to happen," predicted Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach.

A united Republican front was not even guaranteed. Since the proposed amendment was passed in June, a number of GOP lawmakers have expressed reservations.

"By and large, the hue and cry from my constituents has been it's too much or too little," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

House Democratic leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach urged Republicans to give up all together on the "super" homestead exemption plan.

"They should embrace the court's decision as a gift, as a life preserver that it is," Gelber said. "This thing was going to fail and they are lucky the court declared it unconstitutional."

With polls already showing the proposal falling short of the required 60 percent approval, Monday's decision was a major setback.

Circuit Judge Charles A. Francis agreed that ballot misleads people into thinking they are preserving Save Our Homes, the popular 3 percent cap on annual property assessments.

In fact, if it passes, anyone who buys a home will not get Save Our Homes, nor will current Florida homeowners who move. Only those who pick the option to reject the new homestead exemption will preserve Save Our Homes.

Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, released a statement early Tuesday saying the "best course of action for the Senate and for Florida taxpayers is to vigorously defend our work product."

Pruitt noted the difficulty facing lawmakers next week in cutting more than $1-billion from the budget, to meet a revenue shortfall.

Some, though, interpreted Pruitt as acknowledging the proposal is dead in its current form.

"If they really believe in this, fix it," said Eric Hersh, the mayor who filed the lawsuit. "But they know the problem is if they fix the ballot, it will fail."

Left unsaid by Pruitt was the vivid struggle between the House and Senate this spring over the tax cuts. Talks during the regular session ground to a halt because Rubio was pushing for deeper cuts and the Senate forged a more moderate approach.

Now the same dynamic could be resurfacing.

While Rubio publicly backs the Jan. 29 amendment, he has been more energetic about seeking deeper cuts. He wants to do more for non-homestead and commercial property owners, who get nothing under the proposed new homestead exemption.

Rubio has also expressed interest in revising his controversial "tax swap," which would eliminate property taxes on primary homes in favor of higher sales tax.