With half the session gone, legislators have done little on property tax reform

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Mark hollis
Published  April 5, 2007


TALLAHASSEE– Florida legislators today hit the midpoint of their nine-week annual session, with almost nothing accomplished on what most people agree should be their No. 1 task -- reducing property taxes for Floridians.

"It seems that we're farther apart than ever before," said Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat. "You wonder how it's going to come together." Now back in their districts for the Passover-Easter break, the legislators may be getting an earful from their neighbors. Though they've spent more than a month in Tallahassee, the 160 House and Senate members have done precious little on what Gov. Charlie Crist, legislative leaders and voters quizzed in opinion polls agree should be their top goal: cutting property taxes.

True, the politicians have held long, detailed hearings on the issue. Republicans and Democrats have offered competing, complex plans. But there is still no consensus on how to dig out from what many think is a full-blown crisis.

"This is halftime for us," House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, told fellow legislators as they left Tallahassee for the break. "Go home and reconnect with the people we serve. Reconnect a little bit with the people who are sending us the money."

Work has been done at the Capitol on hundreds of other bills. But they've been eclipsed by the unresolved debate on taxation and a parting of the ways between the House and Senate on another weighty problem: how to write a $70 billion state budget squeezed by Florida's cooled-down economy.

At the halfway mark, so much hangs in the balance that some Democrats have started to suggest it might be smarter for the Legislature to stop talking about property taxes now and schedule another meeting on the topic later this year.

That would be the second special session of 2007. In January, lawmakers and Crist attempted to head off a grassroots revolt over property insurance rates. They agreed on a fix in a week, but had the leisure of being able to focus on one issue.

What's more, those changes didn't entail what cutting property taxes might: transforming how and when Floridians are taxed; changes to the state constitution; and deep, even painful budget cuts for cities and counties that could affect public services like parks and libraries..

"They are rewriting the financial landscape of how we will pay for local government services for decades to come," said Ron Book, a veteran lobbyist who represents various South Florida businesses and local governments. "It won't be changed easily, and it will be felt for a long, long time."

In the little more than four weeks left, he said, "a whole lot" still needs to be done.Many of the capital's political pros are betting it will happen. Crist, Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, have said there's still time to cut a deal on taxes, and accomplish everything else the Legislature of the country's fourth most populous state should do as well.

"They'll get it done," said Crist. "And I don't think we'll have to wait for a special session."

Already this spring, legislators have toughened penalties against certain criminals and revamped how public school teachers get bonuses.

They are retooling programs for the poor and considering allowing more toll lanes and toll highways, and they have been listening to proposals for making the state more energy-efficient.

But when it comes to property taxes, the legislators still have to arrive at a meeting of the minds on the ultimate objective. Is it cutting taxes, swapping one kind of tax for another, or doing a little or a lot of both?

When the House and Senate reconvene on Monday, members will also chew over Crist's proposal to let homesteaded property owners take their "Save Our Homes" cap on tax assessments with them when they move. And then there is Crist's call for a constitutional amendment to double the state's homestead exemption to $50,000.

While the amount of work that remains on the tax question may seem insurmountable, the collision of ideas coming from the House, Senate, Democrats, Republicans and governor is part of the normal legislative process. And the pressure is on to seek a compromise because lawmakers know the voters want action.

It's not unusual for the Legislature to let resolution of a major issue go down to the wire, often waiting until the closing hours of the 60-day session to sign off on an agreement

"We have done a lot of work," Rubio said. But, he predicted, "Those last few weeks will be intense."