By ALEX LEARY, JENNIFER LIBERTO and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published October 30, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - After several failed attempts, the Legislature on Monday voted to put a property tax cut plan on the January ballot that would save taxpayers $12.4-billion over five years.
The House's 97-18 vote of approval was more a capitulation to the Senate than it was an embrace of the final package. With a deadline for final action looming and House and Senate leaders at loggerheads, the Senate rushed the plan through its chamber earlier in the day and then left town to avoid further negotiation.
members had sought, including ones offering targeted tax breaks for low-income seniors and first-time home buyers.
"I'm extremely frustrated," said Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee. He said the final deal was narrowly written by senators who "do not feel there's a real property tax issue in this state."
The vote came after a day of anger and disappointment in the House, which had sought deeper cuts and blamed the Senate for tossing an all-or-nothing proposal their way with little time to analyze it and no chance to change it.
"It's terrible to make a decision this way, it's like playing games with people's homes," said Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who voted against the proposal.
The final package was crafted largely by Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, and staff members who sought to offer tax relief without cutting too deeply into schools and other programs. The plan, Webster said, gives the public "the opportunity to vote for real tax relief."
Yet, despite those goals, teachers unions said they intend to fight public approval of the proposal.
The package is a tenuous victory for Gov. Charlie Crist, who campaigned on doubling the homestead exemption and Save Our Homes portability and made the two changes a major part of his inaugural address in January.
It also marks a sharp departure from the tax plan lawmakers approved during their last special session, in June. That package would have phased out Save Our Homes; this one deepens its roots by eliminating the major complaint of Floridians, that you can't take it with you.
With the House vote looking uncertain throughout the day, Crist dispatched Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, a former House member, to work the chamber, going from desk to desk to shore up support. Crist took to the phone, calling members at their desks.
Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, spoke to the governor three times via cell phone. "There was a huge commitment that he was going to work to hold harmless public education," said Seiler, who was among 24 Democrats who voted for the package.
Crist was surrounded by Republican senators at an evening news conference that not one House leader attended - underscoring the sense that the result was a Senate-only product. "So much joy here, because the people have won," Crist said. "They were patient with us but we brought it home."
Year of debate
The House vote came more than six hours after senators went home and ended nearly a year of emotional public hearings and promises by Crist and lawmakers to offer voters a chance to cut taxes. But they failed to agree on a plan in the regular spring session, and a super homestead exemption proposal that came out of a special session in June was struck down by a judge as misleading.
That led to a second special session, which ended Monday. Lawmakers faced a hard deadline of Tuesday for approving a tax plan in time to get it on the Jan. 29 ballot.
The Senate one-upped the House, passing its scaled-down proposal 35-4 and recessing Monday afternoon. That was Senate President Ken Pruitt's final snub of Rubio.
By the time the House met at 1:30 p.m., many senators were in their cars or catching flights.
A week earlier, it was Rubio who antagonized the Senate by seeking to add new tax cut provisions after a deal between the chambers had been struck. Rubio wanted a 5 percent assessment cap on nonhomestead property.
Still, House members were stung by Monday's events.
"To come back at the last minute with this nonsense is a slap in my face," said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami. "It's insulting to the body and it should be insulting to everybody in the state of Florida."
But he and most others voted yes anyway.
"At the end of the day, this is some tax relief," said Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg. "It's not what I want, but it is tax relief."
The Senate limited its package to issues that enjoy widespread popular support. A poll of 1,025 voters two weeks ago by Quinnipiac University showed 74 percent favor doubling the homestead exemption, and 57 percent support portability under the Save Our Homes assessment cap.
But even some Republicans who voted for it said it was too little. "How do I feel battered, let me count the ways," said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico. "I think some of us, or really just this freshman senator, feels battered, because things that we tried to fight for, aren't there."
"We all know that we don't get everything we want," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. "When I look at the total balance today, I think we have hit a balance."