By MARC CAPUTO, MARY ELLEN KLAS AND GARY FINEOUT
Published October 30, 2007
TALLAHASSEE -- Out-maneuvered and out of time, the Florida House railed for hours Monday before approving a scaled-back property-tax plan that the state Senate all but forced it to pass in the waning hours of the lawmaking session.
Now Florida voters will have to decide Jan. 29 if it's enough.
The only guarantees: an average homeowner savings of about $240 from an estimated $15,000 homestead-exemption increase; the right for people to have portability to carry $500,000 in tax protections to a new home; and a small tax cut and a tax-assessment cap for businesses, which House Republicans said was not good enough.
Democrats joined them in grousing that a House plan was better, and that the Senate proposal barely saves anyone anything and could place more of the tax burden on new Florida homeowners and businesses.
Still, the House voted 97-18 to approve the plan. But not before threatening to scuttle the whole plan.
''What did they give us? What did they give us for people to have real tax relief?'' Rep. Julio Robaina, a Miami Republican asked, echoing the frustrations in the lower chamber, which saw its plan steamrolled by the Senate.
The Senate passed its plan, sent it to the House and essentially quit work -- almost daring House Speaker Marco Rubio's chamber to vote against tax cuts.
This proposed constitutional amendment doesn't have specific provisions for low-income seniors, family marinas or affordable-housing owners any more, nor would it call for the election of Miami-Dade's property appraiser as Rubio wanted.
House Democrats, meantime, fretted that the numbers kept changing and that the portability plan would cut too much from schools -- about $2.5 billion over five years. But senators of both parties said the estimates were wildly high, and noted House Democrats voted for a plan last week that would more realistically cut about $1 billion from schools.
The state teachers' union wasn't sure about the price-tag and announced plans to fight the amendment. The business lobby wanted a tighter cap and will either fight the amendment or withhold the big-money support legislators were counting on.
And though many Republicans say they plan to cook up a new plan in the regular spring session for the November ballot, it could get tougher if relations between the House and Senate grow more bitter.
With that backdrop, the House spent about two hours Monday trying to figure out just what to do after the Senate passed its proposal 35-4. The Senate then head-faked as if it were completely done for the day and therefore done for the session, which technically ended at midnight -- a day short of the deadline to get anything on the Jan. 29 ballot.
''Safe journeys home,'' Senate President Ken Pruitt told his members. ``Our work is done.''
The full Senate didn't leave town, but enough members trickled out to ensure that, if the House changed the bill, it wouldn't have the super-majority vote of 30 to get the measure out of the Senate for the ballot.
That put the spotlight on Rubio. Time and again, he has failed in his call for bigger tax cuts -- regardless of the effect on local governments -- and has rubbed state senators the wrong way with his aggressive and unpredictable style.
Rubio was uncowed Monday morning as he trashed the Senate plan while in the members' dining lounge, legislators said.
''I'm a Dolphins fans, disappointment is easy, so I have gotten used it,'' Rubio said. ''We are in a process where we can do nothing by ourselves. Every time you want something you are at a disadvantage because it is a lot easier to say no than say yes,'' Rubio said.
Even senators weren't overly enthusiastic about the proposed constitutional amendment. The Republicans in that chamber fretted most about the proposed 10 percent cap limiting the annual increase in taxable values for non-homesteaded properties. The House wanted 5 percent.
The National Federation for Independent Businesses urged the House to vote against the Senate plan, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce didn't like it either. Unlike the House plan, the cap doesn't affect the schools portion of a tax bill and it would end in a decade unless voters re-authorized it to help businesses out.
''I'm not sure the 10 percent will give them much relief,'' said Republican Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland. A number of Republican senators wanted a 7 percent cap, but voted against the proposal in its chamber.
''Every once in a while, you have to take a piece of the pie rather than the whole pie,'' Republican Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton.
Senators said they could vote for the plan because it's responsible, bipartisan and it's better than a plan the Senate passed earlier as well as another proposal the Legislature passed in June, only to see it stripped from the Jan. 29 ballot. ''I'm not going to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good,'' said Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Greenacres Democrat.
He and other Democrats say they wouldn't have voted for the plan if they believed it cut so much from schools. The official total: $12.4 billion over five years, $2.7 billion of which would come from schools.
Nearly half of the cuts come from portability, but the number is unclear. It's tough to figure any number because no one can accurately predict how many people will move, how much their new homes will be worth and how much tax savings they'll get.
Several Democrats pushed for more time and information and were angry at the lack of either. Many say they wanted to change the tax structure of the state, but noted that the portability plan would favor longtime homeowners who have built up loads of benefit under the Save Our Homes plan. New homeowners don't have that advantage and will have to bear the freight of the tax burden shifted to them.
''This is not tax reform. This is tax shift,'' said Rep. Franklin Sands, a Weston Democrat. ``And as we know in this process, shift happens.''