half the session gone, legislators have done little on property
Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
Published April 5, 2007
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
"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
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."